Birds or Bears?

It seems that the state of NJ is about to take more drastic measures for controlling black bears which will include enforcement of “the bird feeding laws.”

Coping by rscorp

Since it is illegal to feed black bears in NJ, and black bears will eat birdseed – it could become illegal to feed birds when black bears are up and around. Technically, black bears in NJ may not hibernate all winter. They are known to come out of their winter dens and forage if the weather isn’t too harsh. Considering it was in the upper 50s all through December (a month when bird-feeding is in full swing), this scenario is fraught with potential problems and conflicting reasoning.

The DEP (Dept. Environmental Protection) is going to send out officers to canvass homes and businesses in five counties, to determine whether people are intentionally or unintentionally feeding bears. This means that if you have a bird feeder within reach of a black bear, you could face a summons and fine for feeding bears. If your bird feeders are at least 10 feet off the ground, you are not violating the law.

Let’s pause here for a minute and consider bird feeding in general. All of the best sources of feeding birds tell us that birds naturally feed at different levels. A feeder suspended 10 feet in the air is going to attract chickadees, titmice, finches, and possibly nuthatches.

The majority of winter birds that use feeders are either ground feeders, or close-to-the-ground feeders. The best feeders are those that have a bush or some type of shelter nearby, to provide a safe perch between actual visits to the feeder.

For years, we were told if we are going to feed birds, start late in the fall and continue until at least the plants are budding (for veggie birds) and the insects are flying. Research and observation has shown us that birds do survive if a feeder is discontinued, though actual survival rates are probably unknown. Weather conditions are a major factor, of course. But so is habitat destruction. The birds that used to feed naturally in areas that have become shopping malls or housing developments need to find food somewhere else. This is especially true when the ground is snow-covered.


Back to the bears. Since I operate a bird observatory, it’s no secret that we feed birds here during the winter. We do maintain ground feeders, and shelf feeders, and hanging feeders. We do not feed through the summer – and we do gradually cut back on our feeding program in the Spring.

We also take part in Cornell’s Backyard Feeder-Watch program. Depending on area, observations begin on Nov. 11 and run through April 6. Bears come out of hibernation near the end of March – or before if the month is mild. The hard part here is knowing exactly when a bear is going to decide to wake up and wander around. The one in this photo was out for a stroll on January 22 – surely the height of bird-feeding season. And so, because bears could show up here anytime during the winter, we still run the risk of inadvertently “feeding” a bear.

When bears come through here, they head for the dumpster, not the feeders. We do have a bear-proof dumpster, chained shut (believe me, it’s a major chore to throw a bag of garbage into the dumpster!) So in reality, we are complying with the State’s laws on bird feeding. But you can see the potential for conflict and fuzzy guidelines.

What worries me with this new approach is the – what’s the right word? “Military” attitude? I can see enforcing laws about improper garbage disposal. That should be done, bears or not. But to go door-to-door to inspect bird feeders seems to be a bit over-reactive to me. Surely there are bigger environmental problems in this state that need attention than a few bird feeders that might attract a roaming bear?

Part of the problem, I think, is that people tend to panic about black bears because they are afraid of them. And people have to DO SOMETHING about something they are afraid of – so they call the police and it usually turns ugly for the bear. When it doesn’t, the bear runs back into the woods where it came from and all is well once again.

I had my own moments when I first moved back here and had to get used to having bears around, but I’ve learned more about them now and I’m a wee bit more comfortable. Not complacent, just more knowledgeable. I respect them for what they are and their place in the environment. Actually, I’m kind of glad they’re here.

We have copperheads in NJ, and rattlesnakes, and cottonmouth snakes -all of which can kill you. I’ve lived in places that had fire ants, and killer bees, and alligators, and sharks, and brown recluse spiders.

Bears are really no more dangerous than any of these animals, except they will seek out garbage and food, which results in their losing their fear of people.  That’s what people don’t like – the tables are turned!   EVERYTHING is supposed to fear people!  

Seriously though, a not-afraid bear can pose a problem, so I can understand the State’s dilemma. Without the garbage and feeding factors, bears would probably remain timid and in the woods and not contribute largely to any imagined or real  animal/human encounter problems.

Perhaps more public-education is necessary; or perhaps less contruction and more protection for wild habitats for bears is needed. If you build a development on acerage inhabited by bears, guess what? There’s going to be a bear wandering through your yard.

But people don’t like to take responsibility for their actions or the consequences.  It’s like the folks who build their homes on the banks of the Delaware River, then squawk about floods and flood-control. But that’s another story.

There’s no easy answer without sacrificing the bears, which is unacceptable.  But I’m just not sure of this door-to-door canvassing approach, either.  It will be interesting, to say the least, to see what happens here. 


4 Responses to “Birds or Bears?”

  1. kgmom Says:

    Oh Laura, you are dealing with a subject close to my heart. First of all, I am much enamored with bears–I don’t mean to have human contact with them, but I think they are magnificent animals. Really unlike any other animal that I can think of. ( I also love elephants the same way, but you aren’t talking about them.)
    Second, I am furious with our out of control building in so many areas of this country. Suburban sprawl is unhealthy, ugly and bad for animals. So many animals get displaced.
    We had 6 deer running through our neighborhood a week or so ago, and we live in a most suburban neighborhood that has been here for 35 years. The reason–recent destruction of wooded areas to build the mega-mansions that people seem to want.
    You can tell–you hit a nerve with me.
    I say limit human growth and expansion, keep bear habitat, and let the birds be fed!

  2. obi4240 Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more….

  3. Mary Says:

    Seems like overkill and a waste of taxpayer’s money to have officials lurking around bird feeders and issuing citations. They should be giving effort toward garbage patrol, instead. I agree with Donna, there needs to be a limit on expansion that affects wildlife…but human greed takes top priority.

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