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

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

1 comment

  1. Clever bear, and now Sooty’ll be back regularly you’ll need to think up a new contraption to feed your birds…looking forward to the result! Lovely story and photos, Roger!

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