Ruth Bass: Let sleeping bears lie - but they probably won't

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RICHMOND — If you look up bruination on the internet, you'll find yourself in the midst of more than a page of stuff about Bruins sports teams and their fans that have become important enough to declare themselves a nation. Even as ardent Red Sox have done in the baseball world.

If you're a naturalist, or if you heard Becky Cushing's talk at the Richmond Free Public Library on Saturday, you'll know that bruination is, essentially, destined to ruin your most expensive, squirrel-proof bird feeder. It turns out it's a step down from the solid sleep of hibernation and basically means that the black bears (bruins) who roam about in summer will roam about in winter as well.

Commonly thought of as hibernators, our black bears aren't. They go to bed sometimes in December, they sleep for a time without eating or excreting, and then they stir, feel hunger pangs and crawl out of their cave or log and stroll about — hungry as a bear, as we might say. That's why those of us who follow the suggestions and take down our feeders before St. Patrick's Day may look out to see a bear standing on its hind legs and munching away. Or if the feeder is strong, he/she attacks until it gives in to the power of starvation and plain brute strength.

At Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, where they feed birds only in the winter, the feeders go out at 10 a.m. and come inside at 4 p.m. That covers daylight, but those of us who live near the woods know that bears are too big to be afraid of daylight. That's why so many people have photo collections of bears.

In her illustrated talk, Becky Cushing, director of Mass Audubon's sanctuaries in the Berkshires, covered the winter habits of a vast array of creatures, from butterflies to bobcats. As habitats change and animals move, we live around here more and more in what seems like a cageless zoo.

When a tracking crew went around Audubon's newest Berkshire sanctuary — Tracy Brook in Richmond — it produced a map showing signs of bears, rabbits, beavers, skunks, bobcats and a river otter. Tracy Brook is the pond and marsh alongside Swamp Road near the Pittsfield line and is home to a rookery of great blue herons in the spring and summer.

In the middle of the pond is a beaver lodge that many people have described as enormous. It turns out they are totally correct. Cushing, surrounded by busy beavers at her Pleasant Valley headquarters, says it's certainly the largest in Berkshire County.

Once in a great while in daylight, a brown nose can be seen swimming across that little pond, creating a v-shaped ripple in the water. Mostly they're invisible, summer or winter, but they don't hibernate. They can get in and out of their lodge underwater and under ice, and they have a second story — the part we see — where they can be dry — and awake.

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It's amazing to think a woolly bear can survive winter by just curling up under a leaf and that a Luna moth can emerge in spring from a cocoon that clung to a branch somewhere for the winter. Cushing named some creatures that can lower their temperatures and breathing rates so they survive the cold — perhaps that's an evolutionary goal for humans who don't like winter, or who live in an electrically heated house.

Most of our Berkshire mammals apparently eschew the long winter nap. So when the snow isn't too deep, the deer will appear to wreck the yews in the landscaping, the bobcats will be rodent hunting, the foxes and weasels and rabbits will be trotting about.

And the bears will contemplate bruinating, while the coyotes out-yip the howl of the wind.

Ruth Bass tries not to feed bears in Richmond. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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