“Hungry as a bear” is a phrase humans sometimes use to describe their pre-meal salivations. Meal preparers can be thankful this is just a saying because, at this time of year, if people truly were as hungry as a bear, no amount of cooking could satisfy them.

If you happen to see a black bear in Missouri’s outdoors in the weeks ahead, it may very likely be eating. Black bears instinctually know that a long period of winter dormancy is in their near future so, to build up body fat to get them through this period of inactivity, they eat.

And eat… and eat.

In autumn, black bears have been known to spend up to 20 hours per day eating. Their primary choice of food is insects, acorns and other hard mast, soft mast (pawpaws, persimmons), and a variety of small animals (frogs, fish, rodents, etc.). Their food intake is somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 calories per day. To put that in human terms, that’s approximately the equivalent of 70 cheeseburgers. All this eating increases a bear’s weight by up to 30 percent.

Weight increase of this speed and magnitude would be unhealthy for humans but, in a bear’s world, the fat has function. It provides nourishment and insulation during their winter denning period, which begins somewhere between mid-November and mid-December. During this time of dormancy, their metabolism is reduced by as much as 50 percent and their heart rate lowers to a rate of 8-22 beats per minute (from a summer rate of 60-140 beats per minute).

Since this is a time of year when bears are on a constant search for food, humans should be watchful of bird feeders, outside trash cans and anything else that might serve as a food source for a hungry bear. A bear eating acorns in the forest or insects in the distant corner of a field isn’t a problem and probably isn’t cause for alarm. However, when it gets close to feeders, out-buildings and other human structures; that’s when trouble can begin.

The trouble is compounded when bears are purposely fed by people. If a bear visits an area and is rewarded with food, it is almost certain to return. On these return trips, bears can cause substantial damage to any structures that get in their way of finding food.

Bears that are fed by people lose their natural wariness of humans and may seek people out for more handouts. Bears in those situations usually have to be euthanized. Remember the often-used phrase: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

People can learn more about bears at either of two free Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) programs in the weeks ahead. MDC bear biologist Laura Conlee and other MDC staff will discuss bears at “Black Bears of Missouri,” a free program Sept. 25 at the Mills Center (650 Mills Drive) in Lebanon. The event will be 6:30-8 p.m. No registration is required.

People can also get bear information at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center’s Oct. 10 program “Missouri’s Black Bears.” The program begins at 5 p.m. and attendees are invited to stay for MDC’s 80th Anniversary Open House event which will be 6-8 p.m. at the Nature Center. At this event, people are invited to join Missouri Department of Conservation Director Sara Parker Pauley, the Conservation Commissioners and local leaders to celebrate the Department’s history and share ideas about the state’s conservation future. No registration is required for the bear program or the open house event.

Information about bears can also be found at the nearest Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov/bearaware.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.