Bears are often portrayed in cartoons and movies as bloodthirsty predators, but most actually eat more plants than animals. With the exception of polar bears, every species of bear eats some type of plant, berry or insect daily. In fact, the Giant Panda eats nothing but bamboo! Other bears, however, take meat when they can find it and fill in the rest of their diet with vegetation. Because most bears are apex predators, or the top of the food chain in their habitat, they rarely have to hunt and can simply steal meat from other animals.
The two most common types of bears in North America are the black and brown bear. Black bears have the greatest population in the United States, while brown bears are known for their most famous subspecies, the fearsome grizzly bear.
Surprisingly, these two species are not closely related. The American black bear is much smaller, weighing up to 550 pounds compared to the 800 pounds of a grizzly. They live in the same areas but don't see too much of each other, since they forage for food at different times of the day. Both species, however, must prepare for the long winter and hibernation. So, What do Bears Eat? Keep reading to learn how these massive animals prepare to spend months without eating anything at all.
What do Black Bears Eat?
Black bears are omnivorous animals, but mostly eat vegetation and fruits. Despite their tough appearance and long teeth and claws, 85% of a black bear's diet comes from plants. They also like to eat honey and can rip open a whole tree to get into a beehive. Black bears' thick coats protect them from stinging bees, meaning they can eat the honeycombs as fast or as slowly as they like. At night, black bears in the Pacific Northwest fish for salmon in rivers. A few enterprising bears also venture into human-populated areas to steal from trashcans or campsites. In the fall, when they are preparing for hibernation, black bears eat lots of bugs like ants and bees for their protein. Black bears also sometimes catch baby deer, cows and moose, but they are more likely to try to steal carcasses from more active predators like wolves, coyotes and cougars. The extra proteins help them gain fat for their long, annual hibernation.
During the winter, hibernating bears don't eat anything at all. This means that they're starving and often very weak when they wake up in spring. A black bear's favorite foods at this time are young tree shoots and nuts stolen from squirrel caches, which are plentifully available and contain lots of nutrients. These help them get their strength back, and within a month or two they resume their normal diet.
What do Grizzly Bears Eat?
While black bears can be found throughout most of the continent, grizzly bears usually only live in the northwestern part of North America. They prefer grassy areas and coastlines and live alone until the salmon spawning brings them together along streams and rivers. Grizzly bears, like black bears, eat a lot of vegetation, but they also eat more meat than their cousins. Grizzly bears hunt deer, elk, moose and bison regularly, along with fish like salmon and trout. When meat is not available, they prefer to eat wild beans, nuts, grass and tubers. They also love insects, and many get up to half their yearly calories from moths alone.
Not all grizzly bears hibernate, but those that do make sure to pack on the weight before they settle in for a nap. Grizzly bears gain an average of 400lbs before hibernating. Because they have more body fat than black bears, many grizzlies do not sleep through the whole winter, and some don't hibernate at all! Unlike the more herbivorous black bear, grizzlies are capable of hunting through the winter in some regions. Both bears, however, are much more peaceful than their reputations would suggest, and are masters of collecting food from any source available.