Soon it will be the time of year when the State of Vermont admonishes its residents to put away their bird feeders. Yes, just at the moment when wild foods are at their ebb, just as the chickadees begin to sing their mating songs, just as the first migratory birds are starting to arrive, cold and hungry and tired, they want us to put away our feeders. Why? Because of the bears.
When bears wake up from hibernation, they are hungry, as you would be if your last meal had been at Thanksgiving. They are in a bad mood—something to do with low blood sugar, I bet. And they are hunting desperately for the last dried up berries dangling on the end of long-dead branches. If there is a full bird feeder nearby, they naturally go for it.
Our bird feeder sits in our backyard, close to the house. About fifteen yards back from the feeder, the woods begin and go on for quite a while. The first couple of years we were in Vermont I disregarded the State\’s warnings because I couldn\’t believe that a real bear would ever come to our backyard. We should be so lucky! A bear, after all, is a totally wild animal. You won\’t find a bear in a New Jersey parking lot, the way you will find deer and other suburban species there. Bears are magical, or there wouldn\’t be two of them in the sky on clear nights. Anyway, a Vermont bear would never visit a couple of newly-arrived flatlanders.
One early spring morning two years ago we woke up and saw that the bird feeder—one of those metal boxes with a counterweight designed to foil squirrels (they work)–had been knocked off its pole and dragged halfway across the yard. It would have taken a raccoon the size of a short man to accomplish this feat, or a vegetarian coyote with remarkably nimble front paws. And who or what could have dragged that heavy box so far, and bent the metal perch? Perhaps that short man, if he was very strong. Maybe a night-prowling Vermont lumberjack?
We tried every reductionist hypothesis we could dredge up, and finally had to conclude, much to our delight, that only a bear could have done the deed. We made a mental note to e-mail our friends and relatives with the news.
That night we were watching for the fourth time an episode of “As Time Goes By” when our Wolfie, then only seven months old, alerted. I turned my head and looked out the window. And there, at arm\’s length, was our bear. The night was dark, and he was dark, but I could see him plainly—not a very big bear, probably an adolescent emerging from his first winter\’s sleep.
By then the dogs were going crazy. He plainly heard them, but continued to snuffle around. Then, figuring it wasn\’t worth the commotion, he shuffled back into the woods.
That summer, driving on the road just below our hill, we saw him again. I\’m sure it was our bear—not too big, black as the night, shuffling into the trees at the sound of the car. In the fall, at the village game supper, we heard that a bear had been shot near that same road.
I hope it wasn\’t our bear. I want him back, if only a glimpse of him—to be truthful, a glimpse is all I really want. But I want to know that he\’s out there, lurking in our woods, providing that whiff of danger and mystery that makes the fire in the stove feel doubly warm and protective on cold spring nights.
The birds needn\’t worry. There will be plenty of seeds in our feeder this spring.