A Long Winter’s Sleep–Sort Of

On Friday I mentioned that I no longer feed the birds because of bears. I’m sure that startled or downright surprised some folks who thought that bears hibernate in the winter.

Well, don’t be surprised. Bears DO hibernate in the winter. What you might be surprised by is that hibernation is not really what you thought. I know that I only recently learned that there are two forms of it (sort of) and that neither form means “sleeping all winter.”

The first form is a state called “torpor.” This is a term that is coming more and more into use to describe what smaller mammals like chipmunks do. Rather than reduce body temperature and go into an extended period of long term sleep (the simplest way to think of hibernation, although the scientists insist that this is NOT what hibernation is at all), torpor is a similar reduction but it allows for reversal on those balmy days (the January or February thaws, if we get them) so that these smaller mammals, whose bodies do not permit them to store up enough food for extended periods of hibernation, can reverse the process, come out of the torpor, and come out of their dens and find some food and water to get them through their next period of dormancy.

Which animals might be most likely to experience torpor? In my yard the one I see most commonly is the chipmunk, as I mentioned. But others like the opossum, the hedgehog, the porcupine and bats apparently do so (at least in Great Britain. Here, in North America, I’m not so sure about the bats).

But in my reading up on this subject, (which consisted of lots of things, from an Online Biology Course that was TMI to this British article that seemed about right although the graphics are too small, to various other online sources which were helpful–or not–depending on their audience) I learned that bears, even during hibernation, will occasionally come out of that state to forage and drink water.

This didn’t come as any great shock to me but it apparently comes as a great shock to a number of homeowners who have their bird feeders ripped down and torn to shreds every year. And the bears are getting more aggressive. In the last 2 years, 2 dogs have been killed in neighboring towns and another woman has been bitten by a bear while defending her dog. In my town, another man shot a bear while defending his dog.

These are not confrontations I want to have. So no more bird feeding for me. Yes, I could still accidentally have an encounter with a bear in my yard. But the fewer things I do to encourage it, the happier I will be.

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