HARVARD — A black bear, or maybe more than one, has been sighted around town, and police have received several calls over the last week or so, according to Officer William Castro.
Castro, who said he has recently done some research about the creatures and their habits, shared some facts that may help ease people’s anxiety and keep black bears away from their homes.
Black bears are not threatening, per se, he said, and they tend to be naturally wary of people. But he is concerned, he said, that some residents may think the police should shoot a bear when one shows up in the back yard. Responses like that are seldom necessary, he said, not unless the situation is life-threatening.
So what do the police do? In cases where there is a serious threat, local police may contact Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife officers, Castro said, but most calls do not require intervention.
“We want to educate people so they can be safe,” he said.
One of the calls this week was a backyard sighting on Blanchard Road; another noted a black bear seen ambling across Ayer Road.
Neither call involved damage or apparent danger, nor any personal contact with a bear.
First of all, it is good to know fatal encounters with bears are rare. Many more people are killed by bee stings, dogs and lightening, Castro said. But instances of black bears visiting suburban areas are not all that unusual, he said, citing a recent uptick in wild animal populations and the extensive construction going on in the area lately, including at Devens.
New construction that takes away formerly wooded areas not only destroys animal habitat, but it also disrupts wildlife corridors, the trails wild animals use to travel from one area to another, usually unobserved. Couple changes in surrounding landscape with the abundance of open space in Harvard and it is not surprising wild animals are often sighted here, Castro said.
Although any bear is a different kind of visitor than a skunk, fox or deer, a black bear is a relatively benign member of the bear family and not, for example, “like a grizzly,” Castro said.
Black bears are not as aggressive as larger, more intimidating cousins. Grizzlies are not common in this part of North America, and if a homeowner spots a bear in the back yard, it is most likely a black bear, he said.
However, it may not be black. Black bears may be brown as well, with honey or cinnamon-colored fur. They may have a tan or white muzzle and/or a white spot on the chest. Smaller than grizzlies, with short, powerful legs, black bears do not have a large hump on the back as grizzlies do.
An adult female black bear may weigh about 175 pounds; male counterparts 275 pounds. Grizzlies, in contrast, can weigh 1,000 pounds or more. Unlike their towering relatives, black bears are about 3 feet tall on all fours, 5 feet standing up.
Black bears are strong swimmers, agile climbers and may live about 20 years. And because they are all about eating — up to 20 hours a day this time of year — they can become backyard pests. That can be avoided if people do not unwittingly provide snacks.
Pet food should be kept indoors. Bird feeders should only be filled in winter, not now. Keep barbecue grills clean. Another bear magnet is trash. Leaving garbage in accessible places can draw skunks, raccoons and other unwanted visitors, including black bears. Compost piles, too, can lead scavengers to a yard, especially if there are meat or fish scraps in the mix.
Experts say these items should not be composted with vegetable matter in any case, but Castro said strong smelling veggies can be enticing to black bears, too.
Black bears are “opportunistic omnivores,” he said. Although about 90 percent of the bears’ normal diet is vegetarian, they also consume meat and kill small animals to eat. And they may travel up to 100 kilometers to find food. That may mean they show up where they did not before. Natural food sources include wild berries, which may result in bad bear years when berry crops are poor.
The early 1980s and late 1990s, for example, were “problem years,” according to an Ontario-based Web site called Bear Wise (http://bears.mnr.gov.on.ca), one of the sources Castro used to learn about black bears.
He learned, for example, that black bears are solitary animals. A black bear relies mostly on a fine-tuned sense of smell and hearing to locate food, which is serious business for hibernating animals at this time of year. They are usually out and about in the morning or at twilight but may be seen any time of day. They are not usually dangerous unless breeding or protecting cubs.
“They are generally shy of humans and tend to get out of the way,” Castro said. But if you find yourself within encounter distance of a black bear, here are some tips to minimize potential risks.
Do not make eye contact or get too close, not even to snap a picture. If the bear does not leave, stay calm, back away slowly.
Do not allow an untrained dog to go after a bear, which will follow the dog back to its owner, Castro said. He added that it might not be a benign encounter at that point. If the bear climbs a tree, leave it there. If you are in a group, stay together. Do not crowd in, though, always be sure to leave plenty of open space for the bear to make a quick getaway.
Finally, if you believe you are in danger, call 911.