There are eight species of bears in the world, and each of them has unique diets based on their native environment. This article will focus on the three species native to North America and the animals they eat!
North American species of bears include Black, Brown, and Polar bears. In their local environment, these apex predators rely on a diet of animals, including fish, moose, elk, deer, seals, birds, and other small animals. Black and brown bears rely on scavenging, while polar bears eat mostly seals.
Keep on reading to learn more about the different animals that bears eat in the wild and why they eat them!
The Bear Necessities – Habitat, Diet, And More!
Bears are one of the largest animals on land, and the polar bear, in particular, is the largest carnivore, weighing over 2000 pounds!
Most Bears Are Opportunistic Hunters
With polar bears being the exception, most bears are foragers who will search for an easy meal rather than actively pursuing other animals to eat.
However, bears are huge animals and can easily take down prey when they are motivated to.
In fact, bears are one of three predators for moose (wolves and humans are the other two) and can take on pretty much any animal that crosses their path.
Black And Brown Bears Are Omnivorous
Despite this, black and brown bears are omnivorous and will eat up to 90% of their diet in plant foods.
Even outside of the North American species of bears, most of them will eat limited amounts of meat and rely on diets of insects and plant materials. Due to their large size and the energy, it takes to chase a meal.
Bears prefer to snack leisurely on what is easy to obtain.
Habitats From Dense Forest To Open Tundra
Brown and black bear habitats are typically both coniferous and deciduous forests and may find their way to different landscapes near these forests.
During winter, bears will find a den to hibernate by stocking up on food and waiting out the cold weather.
On the other hand, polar bears live in open ice-covered waters in the arctic. They may also dig dens in the snow to birth their young and as shelter from bad weather, but they do not need to hibernate.
Other Important Bear Facts To Know
Hibernation is an important activity that bears have evolved for in which they will go through winter without eating, drinking, or going to the bathroom. To help them not need to defecate during winter, bears will eat clumps of dirt to plug things up – yikes!
The weight of a bear and the amount of food they eat during the year also range greatly.
During winter, they will not eat anything, but during fall, they’ll consume up to 20,000 calories a day, putting on three pounds of fat.
Smaller Bears Eat More Meat Than Larger Bears
The National Park Service reports that brown bears in Alaska will eat 90 pounds per day during summer and fall, while brown bears in Yellowstone eat about 30 pounds daily.
Interestingly, larger bears may seem to be better predators but actually will eat more plants for their diet.
A small male grizzly bear likely has a much more meat-heavy diet than a large female grizzly preparing to have cubs, despite the size difference.
Let’s Clear Up Brown Bear Vs. Grizzly Vs. Black Bear
For clarification on bear species, brown bear and grizzly bear are used interchangeably and refer to the same species, Ursus arctus.
Black bears in this article refer to the American black bear, Ursus americanus, while there is also an Asian black bear.
Black bears also have a rare subspecies with white hair called the kermode or spirit bear. These bears play a major part in indigenous oral traditions representing peace in some cultures and serving as a reminder of the ice age in others.
11 Animals That Bears Eat (And Why)
Here’s a list covering 12 animals (and animal products) that bears commonly eat across North America.
Remember, for black and brown bears, most of their diet consists of plants, so the animals on this list don’t represent a large portion of their diet, but it does represent important protein sources.
Adult moose are not the main target of bears, but newborn moose are particularly vulnerable during the first few months of life.
It’s not to say that an adult brown bear wouldn’t eat an adult moose if it got the chance, but young and wounded animals are the easiest target.
Both black and brown bears will often consume young moose, although black bears are timider due to their smaller size and the protection that a mother moose will provide.
The Larger The Moose The Less Of A Target
Adult moose are rarely a target for bears, and adult bull moose are almost never threatened by bears, thanks to their large stature and massive antlers.
One reason moose are a common animal for bears to eat is that their habitats overlap almost perfectly.
Moose are common throughout the northern continental U.S. States up through Alaska, and this is the same habitat as black, brown, and polar bears.
Moose are a valuable food source for bears, especially those coming out of hibernation and looking for a filling meal after three months of not eating. To gain a healthy weight for the year, several large meals combined with constant foraging is key.
#2 Deer and Elk
Deer and elk are similar animals, although the latter can grow four feet taller and several hundred pounds heavier than deer.
However, both are animals that a bear will eat when they get the chance, and get this – if you were having a deer problem, and they suddenly seem to have gone away, there’s a chance that a bear is lurking in the area. Head on over to our article about why the presence of bears keeps deer away!
Much like how bears target moose, the younger deer and elk are the most commonly targeted animal for hungry bears.
Old and sick/injured animals are also common targets, as a bear has a harder time catching a healthy adult animal.
They Just Live Too Close To One Another!
Deer and elk live in similar environments to one another and the same areas where black and brown bears are found.
With the proximity to one another, deer and elk often fall prey to hungry bears.
Seals are the animal that makes up the majority of a polar bear’s diet and part of the reason that polar bears do not need to hibernate.
Ringed and bearded seals compose a large portion of polar bear diets, with other animals making up the rest.
In fact, a study published in Ecology and Evolution found that more than 70% of a polar bear’s diet is made up of seals, with sea birds and whale carrion making up the next largest portion of their diets.
Seal blubber is an incredibly important resource for these bears.
Seals Are An All-Year Food For Bears
Polar bears can eat 100 pounds of blubber in a single sitting, and the high-calorie count in blubber is key to winter survival.
Since seals are available year-round, polar bears are able to obtain a steady source of seals throughout the year and do not need to hibernate.
While seals are much better at swimming than polar bears, on land, polar bears have a top speed of 25 miles per hour, and seals top out at 1.5 miles per hour.
This is part of the reason that polar bears make meals of seals because it is easy to catch them on land.
Perhaps one of the most iconic images of bears is when they are catching salmon migrating upstream.
These great salmon runs occur at the perfect time for bears preparing for hibernation, starting in September and running through November.
Salmon runs occur when adult salmon who have spent 3-5 years in the ocean return to the streams they were hatched to reproduce and start the next cycle of salmon. Most salmon who participate do not survive.
Bears Have Their Favorite Part Of The Salmon
Not only is salmon a favorite food for bears, but they actually prefer certain parts of the salmon and will eat those first.
The fat-rich skin, brains, and roe (eggs) are the first parts eaten, followed by the rest of the fish.
If a bear is doing well preparing for winter, it may forgo the rest of the fish and just eat the best three parts. If a bear is catching a lot of salmon during the salmon run, it is not uncommon for them to leave a mess of headless carcasses.
Trout is the next most popular choice for bears, and the cutthroat trout, in particular, is one of the most important fall food options for grizzly bears. While trout and salmon are related, trout live in freshwater only, and salmon live in the ocean and then migrate to freshwater to spawn.
Since trout stick to freshwater rivers, streams, and cold-water lakes. Trout are active in cold water, making them an available option for bears during cold fall weather when they are preparing for hibernation.
While trout are smaller than migrating salmon, they still provide plenty of fat and nutrients that help bears pack the needed weight for winter.
However, one of the drawbacks of bears feasting on trout rather than salmon is they’ll need to catch way more fish to make up for the size difference. One salmon may have the same amount of calories as four or five trout, which is why bears generally prefer salmon.
#6 Birds And Their Eggs
Both birds and their eggs are often victims of bears looking for a meal. Eggs are the most likely target because they can’t get away, but many birds can also get caught by surprise.
Bears can combine their excellent climbing skills and keen sense of smell to find bird nests and check them for a clutch of unprotected eggs. And given the size difference between a bird and a bear, the bird is often unable to protect its eggs.
Bears do have to be careful when climbing to nests since thin branches can result in them falling and getting injured. Nests also need to be at least 9 feet above the ground since a grizzly bear can easily reach this height on their hind legs.
But even though they have to be careful while doing it, bears climbing trees is one of the many amazing facts about them! Head on over to our article to learn more awesome facts about bears, and how they climb trees!
Flightless birds, including grouse and turkey, are common targets for bears, and with their eggs on the ground, bears also prefer those as an easy meal.
Songbirds and ducks/geese are harder for a bear to catch, but if they get the opportunity to catch one, a bear happily will.
Both birds and their eggs are excellent sources of protein, and when a bear is able to secure either a large or easy meal of one or the other, they are happy.
#7 Various Insects
Grubs, larvae, and other insects are a great source of protein for bears. With their powerful claws, they can overturn logs and rocks and peel the bark off trees in order to get ahold of these tasty morsels.
Ant colonies often are made of tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals that a bear can vacuum up or use its tongue to reach. One ant might not seem like much of a meal, but 50,000 of them will go a long way in keeping a bear full.
Termites are another insect that bears will eat in a similar fashion to ants. Worms, caterpillars, larvae, and even wasps might also make their way into a bear’s belly.
The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry states that for black bears, in particular, about 90% of their diet is plant-based, but the majority of the remainder is an insect-based diet. Black bears will eat meat when the opportunity arises, but the abundance of insects makes them an easy meal.
#8 Beehives & Honey
Winnie the Pooh is not the only bear that likes to eat honey.
Black and brown bears love to break into beehives for that delicious honey.
Honey is very sweet and full of calories, making it the perfect target for bears. They will also raid both natural and domestic beehives, forcing many beekeepers near bear territory to run an electric fence or another form of defense.
Their Thick Fur Protects Them From Bees
One advantage that bears have when it comes to eating honey is their thick fur. Bees cannot sting through the fur and can only sting the bear in the ears and face. While the stinging is uncomfortable, the reward of honey makes it worth it for the bears.
Bears eat the honey in the beehive, and the comb, larvae, and even some bees make their way into the bear’s gullet. These insects provide lots of protein and nutrients, helping the bear gain a healthy weight.
After finishing the available food in the beehive, bears will shake off the bees like a dog shaking off water and continue searching for food.
Carrion refers to animal corpses, and bears cannot turn away an easy meal if they come across it. While not their first choice, carrion becomes more important as food becomes scarce, and bears still need to put on extra weight for the winter.
Large animals, fish, and even other bears can all become carrion options if a bear comes across them. Due to the nature of bears being opportunistic omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything they can get their teeth into.
Polar bears also rely on carrion, making up a chunk of their diet in the form of whales and seals. Beached whales can provide a lot of calories for a polar bear, allowing them to fill up on rich fat completely.
Livestock and pets in bear territory need to be watched closely and provided with extra protection to keep them safe. Electric fences are a common way to achieve this, and even at a relatively standard (5000) voltage can be an effective deterrent.
If you live in bear country and need to protect livestock, the Cyclops Brute 8 Joule Fence Charger provides plenty of juice to power your fence to shock bears away.
Most livestock resembles the prey that bears are used to and are not able to run very far from the bears, making them an easy target if they get the chance. Not only that, but once a bear knows where to find easy food, it will return to the same spot.
Keep Them Away From Pets
Pets, including dogs and cats, can also become food for bears if left unwatched, although this is not as common as for other animals.
Bears generally avoid people and can be spooked easily by people and barking dogs, which can help deter bears, in fact, we have an article all about how bears are afraid of dogs!
One easy solution to help keep bears away from your property if you have pets or livestock is the use of automatic LED/Ultrasonic Motion Activated Repellers, which will activate with movement and help keep bears away.
#11 Anything Else They Can Catch
Since bears are such opportunistic feeders, they’ll take advantage of just about anything they are able to catch. Reptiles, amphibians, rodents, and more are all animals that bears will eat if they get the chance.
Coastal bears have been known to snack on crabs, oysters, and octopus, to name a few strange animals that you might not think of as prey for bears.
And thanks to their large size, there are few animals that can return the favor and eat bears.
Bear cubs can sometimes be a target for other apex predators like wolves and bobcats, but with an aggressive female grizzly usually, nearby, this does not happen often.
Bears also love to eat garbage – so make sure to keep a tight lid on yours!
Bears are very opportunistic feeders, so their food sources can vary greatly, even between bears living in the same area.
Finding a good source of meat can feed a bear for several days, or they may be restricted to nuts and berries for 90% of their diet.
Regarding the animals that bears eat, nothing in the woods is safe from a hungry bear, although fish and birds have much worse odds than moose and elk.
BOJARSKA, K., & SELVA, N. (2011). Spatial patterns in brown bear Ursus arctos diet: The role of geographical and environmental factors. Mammal Review, 42(2), 120–143.
Bourque, J, Atwood, TC, Divoky, GJ, Stewart, C, McKinney, MA. Fatty acid-based diet estimates suggest ringed seal remain the main prey of southern Beaufort Sea polar bears despite recent use of onshore food resources. Ecol Evol. 2020; 10: 2093– 2103.
Gormezano, L. J., & Rockwell, R. F. (2013). What to eat now? shifts in polar bear diet during the ice-free season in Western Hudson Bay. Ecology and Evolution, 3(10), 3509–3523.
McDonald, J. E., & Fuller, T. K. (2005). Effects of spring acorn availability on black bear diet, milk composition, and Cub Survival. Journal of Mammalogy, 86(5), 1022–1028.
Saunders, D. A., Sage, R. W., & Simek, S. (n.d.). American black bear (Ursa Americana pallas)from: Saunders, D. A. 1988. Adirondack mammals. College of Environmental Science and Forestry Adirondack Ecological Center.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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