Black Bear like a Hairy Bell-ringer

Yesterday was a beautiful experience, but this morning was a revelation.

Shortly after 7:30 am I took my breakfast outside on the front deck, but had to duck down when I saw Sooty already looking for his (hers). He didn’t see me. He came too early for the big feeder to spray a pound of corn and was nosing around for grains left over from yesterday. I snuck inside for my camera and tiptoed outside again in bare feet, but he was leaving the area to wander round the side of the house to our back green at the edge of the woods. That is where I have a small bird feeder for woodpeckers, chickadees, and doves.

The feeder hangs by a coated steel rope between two trees. A basket for seeds and suet dangles half-way across from a pulley and is strung from another pulley fixed to the side of a tree so I can lower it for refilling. It was designed to fool any bear. I knew they had tried to reach it before because there were claw marks on the tree (black bears are very agile), but it was too high and too far across even for an athletic bear to reach.

The feeder is robust and has generally worked well, although it held some mysteries from when I was away. Once, I found the basket broken on the ground, although the horizontal rope was still intact. On a couple of other occasions it was wound over the rope several times and empty. It was not easy untwisting at a height of nearly 15 feet without taking everything down. I wondered if the wind had blown it, but that seemed unlikely in a sheltered spot.

Today, Sooty laid bare the secret.

He nuzzled around near the base of the tree where the pull-rope hangs and is wrapped around the trunk. The doves had already polished off any grain on the ground. I watched as he gazed at the basket so high above, and then reared up on his hind legs against the tree. It was a fine sight and I began snapping pictures through the window. I thought he was going to climb the tree, but, no, he knew a better way.

Pulling the rope like a hairy bell-ringer
Pulling the rope like a hairy bell-ringer

He did something that froze me in wonder. While standing on two legs, he reached out a right paw, as I would my hand, to yank on the hanging rope line. The basket jiggled at the other end. He pulled three or four times more until the basket swung 360 degrees over the horizontal rope to dump any contents. All the while he watched the basket intently. When nothing fell out (something emptied it the day before), Sooty repeated the action so the basket swung over again. Then he knew there was point in trying further, and loped off without a breakfast.

The more we learn about animals the more I realize we underestimate them. But I never imagined a bear was that smart. It is surely a trick that has been done before, probably by the same bear, and unlikely to have been taught by another because bears are mostly loners.

Eye on the basket
Eye on the basket

Dogs are smart too, but they are taught their tricks by humans, and the herding abilities of some breeds draw on an old instinct.

The bear had learned by trial and error not to bother climbing, which is so natural for them when gathering food. I guess that on an earlier climb, Sooty had noticed that when the rope moved during his ascent it caused the basket to jiggle at the other end. At some point, he realized that just enough pull , and not all his enormous strength, would bring the reward. I couldn’t have done the job better myself, even if I thought of it.

black bear
Disgruntled departure without breakfast

Bearly in Spitting Distance

I had to post this news while it is still fresh in my mind. Around noon today, I decided to take a break from writing and have lunch on the deck of our Allegheny Mountain home. I hoped to see some wildlife.

A pair of hummingbirds was squabbling around the nectar feeder, but the scene was otherwise peaceful. The heads of Queen Anne’s Lace were drooping at the end of their season in the little glade, and beech leaves at the forest edge were still. Only the tops of quaking aspens fluttered in the slight breeze.

I thought I caught a movement in the corner of my eye, but when I turned sharply I only saw the hummers. I went back to my coffee and sardines on toast.

I was still munching when a black form cast across my retina, and looked up. At a measured distance of only 18 feet away, well within spitting distance, was a black bear weighing 250 or so pounds—perhaps the biggest beast I have seen here. How it didn’t see me I don’t understand, unless bears are even more short-sighted than I assumed. He or she was an awesome sight. I was amazed that such a bulky animal could wander so close on a gravel path without making a sound.

Black bear
Sooty bear checks out my camera

It put its nose into the air, but didn’t catch my scent, and then its eyes scanned this way and that, but still didn’t notice me despite sitting directly in its vision without anything between us. I had frozen with my sandiness held aloft a few inches from my mouth, and hoping it wouldn’t notice them!

Black bear
Night-time visitor

After this close encounter, which lasted only seconds rather than the minutes it seemed, the animal sauntered on. I knew where it was going. I had seen it every day since arriving on the weekend, but only through my window and mostly at dusk or later. It goes to find corn under my automatic feeder close-by. My best view was from the downstairs bathroom. It is surely the only shower stall in the county from which you can watch bears, though it’s unnecessary to be bare to enjoy the experience.

I now feel an affinity for the animal I named Sooty, although it doesn’t share my sentiments. On another occasion when it spotted me, it scampered into the woods like a frightened rabbit. But I enjoy the company and fear for its safety. I hope it stays around this refuge and doesn’t bother my nearest neighbors down the valley.

Yesterday, my only visitor of the week arrived to make an indoor repair. He is one of biggest bear-hunters in the county, and he regaled me with stories of tracking down animals as we sat on the deck after he finished the job. But I feel like Sooty’s parent and am keeping mum.


Virginia Nature Journal for July

The Garden of Eden might be a metaphor for peace and, indeed, for the whole world, but today’s gardens are shrunken images. They are lawns to highlight a property; or a pain to weed and mow; or a chance to grow unsprayed fruit and vegetables; or, for flat-dwellers, something strange they don’t want to own. But a garden can be a place of peace for everyone, including city-livers, to connect with nature and for educating children.

Tennyson There are two wonderful local examples in Williamsburg.

Stonehouse Elementary School

This school in James City County started a native plant garden called Habitat in 2004, winning several awards. It is a place where children from kindergarten age through sixth grade have lessons about nature and get involved in garden care.

The garden was originally a barren plot between two wings of a building where turf struggled to put down roots into the baked clay. With the help of volunteers from the Virginia Native Plant Society, a few teachers and parents, and donations from well-wishers, it has been transformed into a rich and diverse habitat.

The project launched with the arrival of truckloads of well-rotted chicken manure and llama poo, which were dug into the ground and covered with mulch to slow erosion and evaporation in baking Virginia summers. The first seeds and small shrubs were in the ground by spring of 2005. All are native species, and most have thrived with the help of human hands and without spraying.

Native plants are more supportive of animal communities than aliens. According to Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware: “alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.”

The Habitat at Stonehouse Elementary School
The Habitat at Stonehouse Elementary School

A decade later, it is hard to see any bare ground between May and October. Flowers decorate the top of a multi-story profusion of greenness, and are visited by dancing insects and hovering humming birds. Barn swallows nest in the eaves under a drainpipe, and bluebirds swoop to catch insects. If you separate the foliage you are likely to see scuttling beetles and a praying mantis, and perhaps a frog or even a harmless reptile. None lived there before.

Beebalm burns scarlet, Soldier Mallow towers head-high, and Hoary Mountain Mint hosts nectar-hungry bees. Many other plants are also in full flower, making the Habitat as colorful as any ornamental garden planted with aliens, but it is far richer in life and quite free of poisons. If the leaves of violets, milkweed and Golden Alexander look chewed, we can celebrate the eaters for these are food plants for caterpillars of fritillaries, monarchs, and swallowtails. None of these butterflies were introduced artificially: when their ancestors turned up they made it a home, and for generations to come.

Surely, everyone loves butterflies. Even children growing up nervous of creepy-crawlies will soon offer them a welcoming finger for landing on to become their friend. Children are natural naturalists, and naturally inquisitive about nature. As David Attenborough said to President Obama, the challenge is keeping their interest alive when they grow up.

Williamsburg Botanic Garden

The botanic garden in Freedom Park is mainly populated by native species of the Coastal Plain. There are wetland and meadow habitats for wildflowers and grasses, as well as a green roof pavilion, and a therapy garden. It is a two-acre ellipse open to all ages.

The therapy garden is not like a physic garden of medicinally important species (a good project for the future), but a classroom for children and adults, including people with disabilities. They can get hands-on training for cultivating ornamental and food plants.

It feels good getting hands dirty in dark loam. There is something therapeutic about physically working with nature, and especially a tactile engagement en plein air. Konstantin Levin, a nobleman in one of Tolstoy’s epic stories, became “awfully fond” of hand mowing. He found it was a blissful activity that earned respect from his peasants when he shared in the haymaking.


The botanic garden has a butterfly garden with a monarch waystation where researchers attach a numbered tag to monarch wings for tracking their migration like bird banding. It draws many butterflies, bees, and other pollinators to suck nectar from the abundant flowers at this time of year. The garden also has food plants for caterpillars of some butterflies and moths, and nearby are stands of oak, birch, and sourwood that are favored by other species.

Never too old to make a new friend
Never too old to make a new friend

Last weekend, the garden hosted a butterfly festival. Hundreds of visitors of all ages, a few in wheelchairs, endured temperatures in the low ‘90s in the long tent so they could walk among the fluttering insects. There were hundreds of specimens from a butterfly farm, including two species of swallowtails, monarchs, viceroys, buckeyes, sulfurs, and painted ladies, and perhaps others I missed.

What a spectacle! How many more human generations will be able to enjoy the more threatened species? It was another garden opportunity against the tide of modern life that alienates us from nature.


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