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Interesting facts about bears hibernating in Canada

From Nova Scotia and Quebec in the east to the Canadian Rockies in the west, you can find bears in most places in Canada. The country is undoubtedly the best destination for having the once-in-a-lifetime experience of bear-watching. If you plan to go bear-watching on your vacation, it is important to know when bears hibernate in Canada so that you don't miss seeing them.  

A grizzly bear and two bear cubs walk through green grass next to a stream

Canada’s bear population makes up 60 percent of these animals’ numbers worldwide. These furry mammals are characteristic of the wildlife in Canada and roam the mountains, tundra and forests.  

Three species of bears—the American Black Bear, the North American Brown Bear (also known as the Grizzly Bear), and the Polar Bear—call Canada their home. A rare cream-coloured subspecies of the black bear, Kermode or Spirit Bear, is only found in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It has never been seen anywhere else in the world. 

The best opportunity to see these amazing wild creatures is during the bear-watching season, which runs from April or May to October. During these warmer months, the bears are out of hibernation.  

While hibernation is uncommon in many animals, it is quite common in bears. Most bears, including the males, hibernate during the winter from October or November till April or until the snow starts melting.  

Different types of bears hibernate differently and their deep sleeping time varies depending on their habitat and location. Learning about these incredible creatures that populate our great Canadian land can help us understand better how to treat and protect them.  

Let's take a look in detail at the hibernating habits of Canadian bears. 

Why do bears hibernate? 

During the extremely cold winter months, bears undergo inactive mode to survive the fluctuating temperatures. Hibernation in bears does not mean they are sleeping the whole time. Most of the time, they simply curl up and cuddle with minimal movement. Bears take this winter break to conserve energy due to the scarcity of food in the challenging cold period.  

Bears are opportunistic animals, hence, if they get food, they don't need to hibernate at all, unless they are pregnant. In milder climates, if they have consumed enough food, they go through the winter months without hibernating. For bears, hibernation is merely a survival strategy against low temperatures and scarcity of food.  

How long do bears hibernate? 

In Canada, the hibernation period of the bears mainly depends on the location. On Vancouver Island, bears will hibernate for a shorter period as compared to Whistler in British Columbia. In Canada, the weather typically remains cold for a long period. In such regions, the ideal hibernating period is seven months which is from October to April. If the winter isn't that harsh, say in the southern parts of the country, the period could be about six months. In the coastal regions, that period can become shorter as low as 2-5 months.  

Another interesting fact is that the two common species of bears in Canada hibernate differently. A grizzly bear hibernates for about 5 to 7 months, while a black bear takes more than 7 months. The grizzly bears sometimes wake up in the middle of their slumber in search of food, whereas the black bears can go into a continuous deep sleep for months. For this reason, black bears are considered one of the longest-hibernating animals around the world. 

Polar bear lying on the snow and looking straight towards the camera

Did you know that the polar bear doesn't hibernate? It eats seals that it can hunt on the ice all around the year. Pregnant polar bears, on the other hand, dig maternity dens in the snow during late autumn to keep themselves warm and stay there until March-April.  

How do bears get themselves ready for hibernation? 

Bears will prepare themselves for the hibernating period during the summer. They don't do much but eat! If you ever go bear-watching in summer, you will mostly find them munching on berries, fish or smaller animals. Bears are supposed to eat several pounds of food in a day to fatten up. For getting hibernation-ready, bears need to double up their weight. Generally, at this stage, they weigh about 180 to 600 pounds. More the weight, the better would be the chance of surviving the cold winter weather.  

This excessive feeding activity to gain weight is called hyperphagia. Bears need to go through hyperphagia in autumn if they want to sustain through the winter. Sometimes they even store food in their dens which can come in handy when food is scarce during the snow. 

What do they eat? 

Canadian bears are omnivorous. They devour nuts, berries, grass, roots insects, and dead animals and birds. Apart from these, bears feed on salmons from the countryside Canadian rivers. Based on the location, both the black bears and the grizzly bears will consume whatever is available. They can eat up to 90 pounds of food per day which further forms fat reserves in their bodies. Those reserves serve a great purpose during the hibernation period. 

The denning activity of the Canadian bears 

To protect themselves from the low and fluctuating temperatures, bears also get busy building a cozy home. Every year, they make a den, mostly where they made the last one or inside their familiar territory. During the fall, both the grizzly and black bears start the construction of dens with narrow entrances. They take about 3 to 7 days to finish digging their dens. The dens are usually under the base of (or close to) large trees.  

Close up of a grizzly bear’s face

Bears put together the dens as burrows in the ground, holes in hollow trees or logs, under natural rock crevices or caves, or dens under the leaves which cover up in snow later on. Once the dens are set up, the bears cover up the base of their new home with the boughs of trees. This makeshift bedding of branches forms air pockets that restrict the trapped body heat from escaping from the den. Thus, bears stay warm and cushy in this comfortable bed for the whole of winter. 

During the late fall, when food is scarce, the mammals are all set to curl up and turn on their mode of stillness inside their snuggly winter dens. 

What do bears do during hibernation? 

Throughout the winter, bears do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate. They become completely inactive but do not completely shut down all bodily functions. During intervals, they are also likely to change their postures to avoid getting sores from the pressure. They can also quickly wake up if their dens get flooded or if they sense any danger or a predator nearby. That's not all: female bears also give birth while hibernating.  

What happens when the bears come out from hibernation? 

When the temperature begins to warm up and the snow melts away, the bears wake up from their slumber and know that it's time to abandon their dens. Dominant male bears are the first to emerge, the lone bears or sub-adults are the next and the mother bears with the cubs are the last to come out from their dens. 

As soon as the bears come out during the spring season, they are extremely hungry after months of sleeping and shedding the extra fat. They go out and about in the wild in search of patches of berries or carcasses to fill their hungry bellies. Female bears with cubs are under extra pressure to find food for themselves and their young ones.  

When is the best time to go bear-watching in Canada?  

After emerging from hibernation in around April, both the black and grizzly bears get extremely hungry and head to devour the spring growth.  

It is best to visit Canada, during the late spring and autumn, which is from May to October, to get rewarding sightings of the bears. 

A grizzly bear runs through water with a salmon in its mouth

From late August to September, during the salmon-spawning season, bears can be seen raking salmons from the rivers to fatten up for the upcoming winter. 

Where to go bear-watching in Canada

For the Black Bears: Throughout Canada, black bears live in forest regions of every province. However, the best spots to watch the black bears would be Whistler and on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and The Boreal Forest in Ontario. 

For the Grizzly Bears: There is a sure-shot chance to spot the grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest. Other than that, they can be also spotted in Yukon, Alberta, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.  

The Great Bear Rainforest is also home to the rare Kermode Bear. If you are lucky, you can spot them here as well along with the Grizzlies. 

For the Polar Bears: Without a doubt, Churchill is the best place for polar bear viewing. In the province of Manitoba, the remote town of Churchill is dearly nicknamed the "polar bear capital of the world".  

A bear walks past three photographers that are sitting in a boat

Should you go bear-watching during their hibernation period? 

There are reduced chances of seeing a bear when they are hibernating. Though you may find a bear curled up in its den during the winter, it is a bad idea to go near a hibernating bear. If you disturb a bear during hibernation, you could kill the animal.  

It requires a lot of stored energy for a bear to wake up and come out of the den. Even if the bear can re-hibernate again, the depleted energy will not be enough for them to make it till the end of the hibernation period.  

How you should avoid a bear that has just come out from hibernation? 

Bears being shy creatures, usually tend to avoid people. They could be hiding behind bushes or dense places. Avoid hiking on trails that do not provide a clear line of sight.  

Watch for fresh signs of bear activity that include droppings, tracks, overturned rocks or scratched logs. And when you see them, leave the area calmly. For the same reason, avoid areas with bear food resources such as berry patches, garbage pits or fields. Also, be alert if you come across animal carcasses. An easy way to recognize such areas would be to watch out for birds like crows, ravens, jays or magpies. These birds are often found near animal carcasses which are likely to attract bears as well.  

Talk loudly or sing while hiking. The noise will make the bears aware of your presence and will give them time to shy away. 

Be extra cautious when you are hiking around rivers and streams because you might encounter a salmon-searching hungry bear. 

Be vigilant if you need to go out during the dark hours because bears are most active at that time of the day. 

What you should do if you encounter a bear that has just come out of hibernation? 

Always respect the bear's "personal space". If you spot a bear at a distance, don't approach it, turn around and walk away calmly.  

If you are on your trail and you closely encounter a bear, stop where you are and quickly evaluate the situation. Get your bear spray ready to use and do not run. Back away slowly trying to maintain a safe distance between you and the bear. The more the distance, the less likely the bear will see you as a threat.  

How humans should protect the bears after hibernation? 

As increased human activities have already invaded bears' natural habitat, they are often spotted near human development during the summer. It is advisable to leave them alone during their eating activity after hibernation. You do not want to come face to face with a hungry bear. 

In Canada, bears are often found grazing on the dandelions and grass at the edge of the cliffs on the trails. While driving or hiking on the trails of the forests or at mountain national parks such as Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay, people should be extra cautious. To watch the bears in their natural habitat, it is recommended to go bear-watching with a bear tour guide. 

Due to climate change and the shortening of winter months, the bears' hibernating habits are already changing. Ecologists say that it has become crucial that we give bears as much space as possible. 

Bears are considered Canadian icons. Our challenge is to protect these wildlife icons and live in harmony with them. 

A black bear stands surrounded by orange and yellow maple leaves and fall foliage

Bears are one of the most majestic creatures in the world, thanks to their strength and intelligence. They have always fascinated humans throughout the ages, and their hibernation habits are one of the most interesting parts of their lives. During the summer while bears are eating, denning, feeding on salmons, and getting fat for hibernation, bear-watching becomes the most exhilarating outdoor activity in Canada.  

If bear-watching is on your bucket list, you will get countless chances while exploring the Canadian wilderness and its national parks. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does a polar bear hibernate?

Unlike other bears, polar bears do not hibernate.

What months do polar bears hibernate?

Pregnant polar bears build snow dens during the fall and winter months, but this is not for hibernation. They do this to prepare for giving birth.

How long do polar bears sleep?

Polar bears sleep for around seven to eight hours at a time. Like humans, they also take naps when they need to conserve energy.

What happens if you wake a hibernating bear?

Polar bears do not hibernate, though other bears do. For bears that hibernate, many factors can affect when they wake up. If a bear is disturbed by a loud noise or senses a threat, they could wake up early. In this instance, a bear would defend itself.

How long can a polar bear go without air?

Polar bears can hold their breath and close their nostrils to swim underwater. Most dives are short, lasting from 30 seconds to two minutes on average.

Can polar bears survive in warmer weather?

Polar bears have adapted to the Arctic’s freezing temperatures. They depend on the sea ice to hunt and breed. Due to climate change, this cold environment is warming, and the ice is melting. While polar bears can regulate their body temperatures, they would likely overheat if they were in a warm environment for a prolonged period.

What is the warmest temperature a polar bear can live in?

Average temperatures in the Arctic can range between –40° C to 10° C. In some regions, summer temperatures can occasionally reach 30° C. There is not enough data to know how long a polar bear could live in a warm climate.

How long do polar bears live?

In their natural habitat, the average polar bear lives to be around 15-20 years old. There are records of polar bears reaching their 30s, but this is not common due to climate change and other threats to their survival.

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