Black Bears Part II: The Signs

March 17, 2009

Note: This series is based on personal experience, but it is important to note that any wild animal is capable of being extremely dangerous. Seek expert guidance if you are interested in serious photography or research ventures.

Even if you are unable to find a live black bear, chances are good that you may notice some other signs if they live in the area. These can come in the form of footprints, snagged hair, tree scratches, droppings and broken tree limbs.

A full bear footprint will show five toes with claws. Front paws are indicated by a narrow pad while the rear paw is longer and shaped somewhat like an upside-down pear. However, depending on the terrain and manner of walking, it’s possible that only four toes will transfer to a track and claws may not be noticeable. I’ve had a lot of success finding tracks in snow, but otherwise check areas of loose soil or mud.


Black bears have coarse hair, and despite their name, the color can range from black to brown and even white. However, I’ve never seen one in Shenandoah National Park that is not predominantly black. Several have had areas accented by light brown. If you think an area may have bear activity, check the brush for snagged hair. If you find some, it’s not a guarantee, but one indication that you might be on the right track.

Either in the course of ripping logs apart for bugs or acting like a giant house cat on a scratching post, it’s possible to see scratches left by bears on trees. Typically the claws are an inch or so apart and can be seen at just about any elevation since black bears are expert climbers.

If you don’t see anything by looking up, take another look at the ground. Bear scat can sometimes be identified by a diet of berries and other vegetation.

If you still don’t know about bears in an area, consider the following – bears love fruit. A particularly popular variety that I’ve observed are apples. If a bear thinks fruits or berries are in a tree, it will likely climb it.


In the course of eating, it will tug branches closer and usually snap them. If you happen to be in an area with apples, pears, and the like, check the tops where the fruit grows and notice whether or not they’ve been ripped apart.

Tune in tomorrow for the next segment, “Safety.”

5 Responses to “Black Bears Part II: The Signs”

  1. Renee Says:

    Neat picture of the bear pulling the branches!

  2. Evan Dyson Says:

    Thanks for dropping in. If you like that, you’d like the book images. I’m holding the best images for publication later.

  3. Jim T Says:

    These are great posts. I can’t wait until the next one.

    By the way, we have an apple tree at the cabin, and it is close enough to SNP that they have bears from time to time…I think we’ll set up a stakeout!


  4. Evan Dyson Says:

    I think there would be a good chance of a visit near that tree if bears are nearby. Good luck!

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