Bear cub

Weeks after birth, black bear cubs are fitted with identification tags to support ongoing black bear research in PA. The metal tag is positioned in such a manner to allow the ear to grow up to the inside of the tag.

It’s that time of year when black bear sightings increase. While we are in the early stages of summer, black bears are beginning to prepare for the fall.

Simply put, black bears are large animals and have appetites to match. Since coming out of hibernation, black bears have been on the roam. Family groups are readily seen, along with a respectable number of young bears traveling about.

Black bears are fascinating creatures and a pleasure to watch. This past weekend during my travels I caught a glimpse of a bruin. The encounter lasted for a few seconds, but that small amount of time was well worth the trip.

One of the most common questions asked when you mention observing a black bear is, “How big was it?” The answer is pure speculation. However, knowing what to look for can provide clues which allow you to provide an educated guess.

Black bears grow into their ears. Okay, so what does that mean? In a nutshell, at birth a cub bear’s ears are relatively big.

Black bears seem to have ears that resemble miniature radar dishes when they are youngsters. As the bear grows, its head becomes larger; however, its ears remain relatively small by comparison.

Prior to sow bears coming out of hibernation, many are safely removed from their dens. She, along with the cubs, are documented. This is also the time when cubs will receive their ear tags. The aluminum tags are numbered and recorded. Placement of the tags on each ear are located in such a manner to provide just the right amount of growth of the ear to reach inside of the tag itself.

Black bears that look as though their ear tags are too large happen to be young bruins. And it won’t be long until they grow into their ear tags.

By contrast, if the bear has ear tags that appear to be small, then you’re looking at a bear that is older and no doubt larger in size.

The shape of a black bear's head can also provide a number of interesting clues. This will take more than a passing glance, but males tend to have a "blocky" triangular-shaped head. On mature animals the ears tend to look as though they are situated down off the sides of the head. This makes the ears look small and rounded.

Also the legs can offer some additional clues as to the size of the animal. If the bear appears to be lanky with long legs, it is most likely a small bear. The legs of sows and boars look short because of their bigger bellies that tend to hang down.

The bigger the bear track, the bigger the bear. Okay, but keep in mind which track you're looking at. A black bear will leave two impressions; the back foot is longer and somewhat resembles that of a human barefoot. The front track is generally wider than it is long. When measuring the width of a front foot track, a five-inch track is average, six inches indicates a large bear, and tracks of large male black bears will not exceed seven inches. The track of a female black bear will generally not exceed five inches in width.

What about estimating the weight of a black bear? It's tough on the hoof, but after the bear is down, the task can be easy. A girth measurement is the easiest method in estimating weight.

Here's how you do it. The chest circumference should be taken around the chest immediately behind the shoulder. The tape should be snug, not tight. Girth measurement: 25 inches - 55 pounds live weight, 30 inches - 108 pounds, 35 inches - 161 pounds, 40 inches - 225 pounds, 45 - 300 pounds, 50 inches - 385 pounds, 55 inches - 481 pounds, 60 inches - 588 pounds.

Take the time and watch for the characteristics mentioned and it will put the black bear you're looking at in perspective. Good luck.

Keep in mind that it is illegal to intentionally feed bears in Pennsylvania. Also, the unintentional feeding of bears which results in nuisance complaints filed with the Game Commission can result in a written warning that, if ignored, could lead to a citation and fine.

When the no feeding of black bears law went into effect, Mark Ternent offered some great perspective.

“We recognize that people enjoy viewing wildlife, and we are not attempting to impact that activity,” Ternent said. “However, the agency has an obligation to reduce conflicts when and where we can. All too often, human complaints about bears can be traced back to intentional or unintentional feeding. To protect the public, as well as bears, we need to avoid the dangers of conditioning bears to find food around homes. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise.”

Black bear sightings will increase over time. Right now black bears, in general, are laying low during the heat of the day. Then they move about during the cool of the evening and throughout the night.

However regardless of the time of day, when a black bear sighting occurs, enjoy the experience and pay close attention to what you see.

(Charlie Burchfield, an Era outdoors columnist, can be reached at