Ursine communication is not unlike communicating with your pet dog. Bears communicate to keep cubs and mothers together, find mates and relieve social tensions. Bears speak a language of dominance and submission, of aggression or solicitation. They react to people in the same way they would react to another bear. Paying attention to what bears have to say should keep you out of trouble.
More often than not, bear behaviour is misinterpreted. People all too often interpret what a bear does in terms of their own fear. According to Dr. Lynn Rogers, an expert on black bear behaviour, fearful people interpret any sound as a growl, a look as a glare, and walking towards them as “coming for me.”
The best advice anyone can give you is to learn as much as possible about bears and how they communicate. Bear behaviour can be predictable. The more you can learn about bears and how they behave, the less likely you will be to have a negative encounter or misinterpret interactions.
Bears convey information through a diverse range of body language, vocalizations and odour signals.
A bear’s body posture can communicate their mood. Walking or running away, sitting and lying down convey that the bear is subordinate to another bear or person. The bear is saying he does not want to fight for dominance, a fishing spot or a female. Conversely, a bear can convey dominance by approaching at a walk or run.
Bears threaten one another. Although bears are large and powerful animals capable of causing injury to one another, they prefer to use ritualized threats and displays as an alternative to actually fighting. A bear may also use these same behaviours with people – and they can be very convincing.
A bear may sit down or move away to show respect. He may look away, yawning to feign disinterest. He may exhibit “ignoring” behaviour – standing motionless or perhaps grazing, indicating he has no intentions and just wants to be left alone. When a black bear climbs a tree, he is showing its submission. A mother black bear will also tree her cubs for safety.
A bear may lunge suddenly toward a threat, and slap at the ground or surrounding vegetation. The interpretation of this behaviour depends on whether it’s a black bear or grizzly. If it’s a black bear, it is merely a bluff that means the bear feels nervous and apprehensive, but for some reason may be reluctant to leave. A grizzly bear’s message should be taken far more seriously. Most serious injuries and attacks on people are a result of grizzlies feeling threatened and acting in a manner that eliminates the threat.
A bear uses head and mouth movements as well as body orientation. A bear may circle an adversary with head high, then drop it and begin a series of short open-mouthed lunges as it becomes more challenging. A bear that is very agitated and may be about to make contact may have their ears flattened against their head. This may signal the bear’s intentions, but it also protects the ears from bites. Approaching bears often have their ears cocked forward, likely listening for signals.
The first line of defence for a bear may be to bluff charge their rival – a full-tilt run, stopping short at the last minute. Just before charging, he may lay his ears back and lower his body closer to the ground, fixing his eyes on the object of his fear. Bluffs are generally used to send a clear message and intimidate an opponent!
Three types of bluffs are common, and all include sudden, explosive blowing with clacking teeth – the defensive display of a fearful or surprised bear. Another display is blowing with a short lunge and slapping the ground or an object – an uneasy black bear’s way of saying “Move Away.” A more emphatic version is blowing and bluff-charging. These blustery displays can occur when a bear feels crowded but is reluctant to leave food or cubs. However, displays usually end with bears turning and retreating, perhaps to repeat the performance, perhaps not. Research has shown that such displays by black bears are not preludes to attacks and that aggressive behaviour by people (yelling, waving arms, making short rushes, throwing things to scare the black bear) is almost certain to put a bluffing black bear in retreat.
According to Dr. Lynn Rogers, in 34 years of studying black bears, he has observed bluffs to be nothing more than blustery acts. “I’ve never seen bluster turn into an attack. Bluff charges by black bears are blustery with exaggerated pounces and explosive blowing. When I see bluster, I back away and give the bear more space. I have even crawled into the den of a very blustery bear with cubs, and she didn’t do a thing except be blustery.”
Grizzlies command extreme caution. A grizzly bear that exhibits defensive behaviour MUST be taken seriously. A defensive grizzly is sending a clear message to an intruding human to immediately remove itself as a threat. The grizzly may be defending cubs, a food source or themselves. Any of these circumstances could lead to a potentially dangerous situation. See the section on bear encounters for more information.
In an extremely rare circumstance, a bear may actually make physical contact. (Click here to learn more on what to do in the event of an attack). More often than not, bears just want to go about the business of everyday life.
Beware: Bears, particularly black bears, sometimes use message bites to communicate that you are TOO CLOSE! If you lure a hungry bear closer than they feel comfortable with food, you might get slapped or even bitten. If a bear is very hungry, he will overcome his natural fear of humans to obtain food. As long as the bear’s focus is on the food, everything may seem fine. Once the food is gone, however, the bear may shift their attention to the person, and they may begin to feel crowded and uncomfortable.
Normally, the bear wouldn’t dare to turn and run, as its defences are weakest with its back turned to their adversary. Instead, bears prefer that the person backs away, so it swings its paw and slaps at the person. In the confusion, the bear may make a hasty retreat. Injuries from a slap can be nothing more than scratches and welts on the skin to more serious deep cuts sustained from a grizzly’s long claws. Bites (especially “message” bites) are usually carefully restrained and may only cause bruising.
In any event, this is a situation you should avoid. When people get too close to bears, it creates the potential for a conflict situation, and the bear usually ends up being the loser (because they are shot by officials as a human safety risk). Always keep a safe and comfortable distance from bears (one football field length).
A bear may relay information by “gaping,” opening its jaws wide in close proximity to another bear’s face that he’s trying to impress. A favourite sport of bears is wrestling and jawing – sparring with their open mouths almost touching. Dogs do this all the time when they’re playing.
Bears also communicate through play. Although bears may use offensive postures to communicate dominance, they also have peaceful, non-threatening exchanges. One of these interactions is play. A wrestling match between two bears contains many of the actions and postures seen in a potentially damaging fight, but the motivations and intensities are different.
The bond that exists between a mother and cub is constantly reinforced through play, touching and nursing. Siblings constantly touch and play together. Bears of similar social rank share elaborate greetings of rubbing and sniffing. Males and females use these same social signals during the mating season.
Unlike bears in movies with dubbed-in soundtracks, bears do not usually vocalize. When the need arises, they communicate with grunts by expelling air in different ways, or with a resonant “voice.” Bears use the same vocalizations and body language toward people that they do toward each other, and knowing those sounds can help people react appropriately to bears they encounter. Click here to listen to black bear sounds.
Black bears are more likely to vocalize than brown bears. Most bear vocalizations toward people are a result of perceived threats, which bears use as they react to a stressful or fearful situation. They use vocalizations to diffuse the situation and they almost never lead to physical contact.
Black bears vocalize at three levels of intensity. The lowest level or most common bear sounds are tongue clicks and grunts, which are used in amicable situations, when vocalizing to play partners, mates, cubs, and occasionally people.
The next level is expelling air (blowing) in various patterns associated with some body language as described above and usually with a narrowing of the muzzle and a protruding upper lip. These are basically expressions of fear, nervousness and apprehension. The bear usually retreats after it makes this sound.
Another sound that is often misinterpreted by people as threatening is chomping or clacking the teeth. Again, this is merely an expression of fear. It is not an effort to threaten and it is not a prelude to attack. For example, a black bear that lost its grip in a tree and almost fell may blow and chomp with no threat nearby. Black bears that blow and chomp are ready to retreat.
Huffing is another sound a scared bear makes. They make this sound after they have run away or climbed a tree. They make it in the same context that a person would say, “Whew, you scared me.” They make it when they stop retreating.
The highest intensity vocalizations are expressed with their human-like voice, which they use to express a range of emotions. The black bear’s resonant “voice” is reserved for strong emotions and is seldom used except by a males fighting over a mate or a female defending her cub from a male. But, cubs will also readily scream in distress, whine when approaching their mother or give a tremulous hum when nursing or comfortably warm.
Adults use this voice when in pain (bawling), in fear (moaning), in combat (bellowing), or when seriously threatened (deep-throated pulsing sound). Unlike cats and dogs, black bears seldom, if ever, growl, although the fear-moans of treed or trapped bears are often mistaken for growls. Predacious attacks are silent, as is normal feeding and even play.
A mother black bear can send her cubs scampering up a tree with a single huff, and then when the danger has passed, a few grunts summon the cubs down again.
Grizzlies of close social rank use low-level vocalizations to communicate when near one another. Vocalizations may serve more than one purpose. An agitated female brown bear makes popping sounds by bringing in air, clicking her teeth and moving her cheeks. As she “pops” she draws in scent, warns that she is agitated, and at the same time alerts her cubs. Startled grizzlies may clack their teeth, turn sideways to show their body size or make sudden short rushes at their contender. These warnings MUST be taken seriously!
Odours send messages to other members of the bear population. Odours from urine, feces and body scent can reveal a lot about a bear. They can identify an individual, divulge its sex and age, or whether they are sexually receptive. Males use urine to advertise their presence during the breeding season, both as an attractant to other females and as a warning to other males.
Bears often communicate with each other by marking trees with their scent. This is usually done by standing on two legs and rubbing the back, shoulders and especially the back of the head on a tree, telephone pole or other object. They may bite and claw the trees, too. Scent reveals individual identity, reproductive status and probably mood. Marking is most frequent by adult males before and during the mating season (from late May to early July), but some marking is done by all bears in all seasons of activity. Any bear that passes a marked tree is almost certain to stop and smell it and perhaps add its own scent.
When in bear country, there are many signs that will alert you to a heavily used bear area – the presence of fresh tracks; a day bed; scat; or a clawed or chewed tree. Being aware is the best line of defence in bear country. Understanding bear communications can help you avoid a negative encounter. Stay alert of your surroundings and be watchful of signs of bears. See our section on Play while recreating in bear habitat.