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Blane Klemek column: Summer bird feeding and bears is problematic combination

To feed birds or not to feed birds, that is the question - at least in bear country.

From now until Minnesota's black bears enter hibernation sometime in mid to late October, a black bear's overriding ambition will be focused on how to keep its belly full. In the meantime, black bears sometime find themselves at our backyard bird feeding stations.

Some of you may recall my story of the "pink thing." For those of you who don't know, the pink thing turned out to be a black bear's tongue licking moths from the picture window of my house. He was a bold creature, but he turned out to be just a hungry and harmless, moth-loving bear that left and never came back after he got his "licks in."

I've also had bears pull my suction-cup style hummingbird feeders off my windows, have watched bears licking sunflower seeds contentedly off the ground, and have even had a few bears knock down my suet feeders. While always a surprise - after all, a black bear in Blane's backyard is indeed rare - many of us, however, including yours truly, actually live in the bear's backyard.

So, what's a bird-feeding enthusiast supposed to do in bear country? Put up barrier fences around our feeders? Stay up all night on guard? Keep the lights on? Well, I almost hate to say it, but if a black bear comes to eat your birdseed, your best bet is to quit feeding the birds entirely - or at least for a while anyway.

Yes, removing the feeders, the seed, the feed, the hummingbird juice, the oriole jam, the suet cakes - what have you - is the best thing to do when a bear pays a visit and doesn't go away. By removing anything that tastes or smells good, chances are excellent that your bear will amble off in short order. Once the food is gone, your friendly neighborhood bear is likely to seek happier hunting grounds elsewhere.

As a co-worker of mine likes to say to people who report having problems with bears in their bird feeders, "You have to re-train your bear." Not to imply that anyone's guilty of "training" a wild bear in the first place, but the fact is that once a bear finds a food source, it is likely to continue exploiting the resource until it's all gone. Hence, removing the food source and any evidence thereof usually hastens the bear's departure.

When experiencing problems with nuisance black bears, what we need to ask first is, "Why is there a bear in my backyard anyway?" Nine times out of 10, if not 10 out of 10, a black bear goes where its nose "tells" it to go. And where that place is, is normally where there's something good to eat. The sweet smelling hummingbird sugar-water, grape jelly oriole food, black oil sunflower seed, and scrumptious suet cakes are delicacies that bears can hardly resist.

Sometimes, especially when natural foods are scarce, a black bear's drive to eat might become so overwhelming that some of its natural wariness around people and our homes might be temporarily diminished. And when this happens, bears find themselves in trouble with people. This is why it's recommended to avoid feeding birds completely from April 15 to Oct. 15.

Contrary to popular belief, wild birds will do just fine without our handouts. But if it's insisted that summertime bird feeding stations be maintained (I'm one of them), then be aware that, depending on where you live of course, a black bear might find its way to your backyard someday. And if that should occur, and you wish to continue feeding your birds, there are several things you can and should do.

If you don't want to quit feeding your feathered friends altogether, consider stopping at least for a week or two. Remove all of your feeders, put them in a secure location (inside the garage is good) and clean up any residual seed or other bird foods from the ground or other areas. As soon as your bear realizes that the food is gone, it will soon be gone, too

Or, consider removing your feeders and food each night for the same period of time and placing your feeders, birdseed, and other foods back outdoors during the daytime. Keep in mind, however, that hungry bears don't just eat at night, although they are more active during nighttime.

If these suggestions don't suit you, try suspending your feeders 10 or more feet above the ground and away from buildings, poles, and trees. Use a rope and pulley system to retrieve and fill your feeders. Just realize that black bears are very adept climbers. It's surprising how nimble a black bear can be when it comes to climbing.

You may also consider planting a hummingbird flower garden instead of feeding hummingbirds with sugar-water feeders. Other ways to attract birds without feeding them is to install plenty of nest boxes and nesting structures, put out birdbaths and grit, and to provide dusting sites for your wild birds.

As such, learning to live with black bears is important for anyone residing or recreating in bear country. Black bears are intriguing and shy Minnesota mammals that, because of keen noses and large appetites, sometimes find themselves -through no fault of their own - in a little trouble.

It's the way of the bear and a good reason for our understanding as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at