Bears are the definition of intimidating beauty. They’re ferocious yet protective, clumsy yet agile, and intimidating yet fascinating. Whether you see these critters all the time or it’s a rare treat, you might want to know a few things about bears such as what they’re attracted to and how to repel them.
Bears have an incredible sense of smell, using it to locate food and understand scent marks left by other bears. Some scents that attract bears include bird feeders, pet food, garbage, boneyards, food scraps, beehives, roadkill, water sources, fruit trees, berry bushes, and other bears.
Bears aren’t always welcome in our yards, especially when they get into things they’re not supposed to. Let’s check out the scents that attract bears and what you can do to repel them.
What Kind of Bears Live in North America?
When you wake up early in the morning and leave for work, you might notice your trash can has been knocked down. The question is: by what?
Raccoons, opossums, coyotes, and foxes could all be the culprit. Another creature that loves garbage – bears! But we all know there’s more than one kind of bear…so which ones live near you?
There are three species of bear living in North America. This includes black bears, brown bears, and polar bears.
These three species of bear share many similarities such as their feeding and mating habits. However, there are subtle differences between them that go deeper than just their physical appearance.
Black bears eat the most vegetation and insects of the three. Polar bears eat the most meat and rarely ever eat vegetation. Brown bears are somewhere in between, depending heavily on moth larvae to build up their fat stores.
But hang on a second, what about grizzly bears and Kodiak bears? While these two bears are found in North America, they’re just a subspecies of brown bears. There are all kinds of subspecies living in North America, Europe, and Asia.
But back to the original question: which bears live near you?
Black bears are by far the most widespread bear in North America. According to the National Wildlife Federation, black bears live in the contiguous United States, Alaska, most of Canada, and can be found as far south as Mexico.
Black bears are smaller than both brown and polar bears. You cannot rely solely on black fur to identify them. Their color can range from white like a polar bear to black as they are most commonly seen.
In North America, brown bears can be found in Alaska and western Canada. They’re also found in other parts of the world such as Europe, Siberia, and the Atlas Mountains.
North America is home to three subspecies of brown bears. That includes the familiar grizzly bear, the Kodiak bear which lives exclusively on Kodiak Island, and the California grizzly bear.
The pure white fur and soda commercials can lull you into believing these bears are sweet and gentle. But in fact, the opposite is true.
Polar bears are the largest of all bears and live in cold climates. They’re found in Alaska and the Canadian arctic regions according to the University of Michigan.
While black bears are easily intimidated by humans, brown bears are a bit more aggressive but will usually try to avoid humans. Polar bears are an animal you do NOT want to mess with.
Not that polar bears are inherently aggressive, but their native habitat does not include areas where many humans live – unlike the black bear and brown bear. When they see a human, it might be the first human they’ve ever seen before, and their behavior is unpredictable.
What Are Bears Attracted To?
Let’s dive into the meat of this article and talk about what scents bears are attracted to. Here’s a hint – It’s almost all related to food!
Big surprise, right? I mean bears are massive so they must have a massive appetite, right? This is true for bears especially during the spring and summer months when they’re trying to put on fat for the winter. But bears aren’t as big of carnivores as you may think.
The vast majority of a bear’s diet is fruit and vegetables and insects (except for polar bears). Their sense of smell is so good that they can pick up the scent of rotting meat over two miles away.
Let’s check out the 11 scents that bears are attracted to. For each scent, we’ll give you a rundown of what you can do to repel bears from that particular scent.
Bird Feeders Attract Bears
Having a bird feeder in your backyard is an excellent way to get up and close to wildlife. You get to see all the pretty colors of the local songbirds and provide them with food in the rough months of winter.
There are a few downsides to having a bird feeder including attracting squirrels and other rodents like mice and rats. This can in turn attract bigger predators like coyotes and foxes.
Another downside to bird feeders is the seed can attract bears. The bear that is most attracted to bird feeders is the black bear. Brown bears are not likely to be attracted by bird feeders but it’s happened on occasion.
So, do you have to stop feeding the wonderful local birds or is there something you can do to make your bird feeder less attractive to bears? Don’t worry, you have a few options:
Invest in a catcher tray: One of the reasons bears are so attracted to bird feeders is because it’s free food laying on the ground. Birds hop around and knock seed from the feeder to the ground all the time. Consider buying a tray like the Pranovo Bird Seed Catcher Tray.
This product can easily hook on to your existing bird feeder and will catch all the seeds before they fall to the ground. One downside is that bears might get into the tray searching for food.
Provide less fatty foods: Bears are all about the fat content. They love oily sunflower seeds and suet the best. Try using a different kind of seed, preferably one that is lower in fat.
Put up and take down feeders at the right time: According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, bird feeders should be put away at the end of March and can be put back up in early November. This avoids peak mischievous bear activities.
One thing you do not want to do is wipe petroleum jelly or other oily substances in an attempt to make your bird feeder less available to bears. The oily substance can stick in a bear’s fur, making their coat permeable to both water and the cold, which can endanger their life.
The Smell of Pet Food Attracts Bears
Since polar bears inhabit areas that are far less densely populated than brown bears or black bears, some of these scents will not apply to polar bears.
However, if you find you do live near polar bears, many of these scents can still apply to those trundling carnivores.
Pet food is a universal food for all wildlife. Pretty much any scavenger or carnivore will eat pet food, including bears. Leaving pet food out is a surefire way to attract all sorts of pests.
Because bears have such an incredible sense of smell, they will be able to pick up the scent of pet food from pretty far away. And they will come!
All bears tend to avoid contact with humans, so they’re more likely to find any left-out pet food at night. However, bears that find pet food are more likely to return, even during the middle of the day.
Finding food is considered a reward for their behavior, and makes them less and less fearful of humans. This is something we do NOT want as it is a danger to humans and bears alike.
Here are a few suggestions on how you can avoid attracting bears with pet food:
- Don’t feed pets outside
- Clean up any uneaten pet food
- Do not leave water dishes out
- If you feed livestock or chickens outdoors, be sure the food is in an enclosure with a fence
If you must feed your pets outside, the best thing you can do for yourself is to clean up every last crumble of food after the pet is done eating and to bring the dishes inside.
Keep Your Garbage Secure to Avoid Attracting Bears
Your garbage may smell terrible and rotten to you, but to a bear, it’s like filet mignon and a baked potato. Yum…
The plastic and cardboard in your garbage aren’t what attracts bears. It’s the leftover scraps, the empty pop cans and bottles, and anything sweet. Not to mention they are attracted to the insects that are attracted to your garbage.
Cans that are left unattended and easily pushed over are a number one target for bears. And remember, if they are rewarded with food, they’ll return more often than not.
According to a 2007 Master Thesis at Humboldt University, bears that find rewards (food) at certain locations are far more likely to return to those locations than bears who do not find a reward.
To keep your garbage secure and away from the prying nose of your local bears, you can invest in a lid lock like the Blazer Brand Strong Strap Universal Garbage Can Lid Lock Utility Strap. This product does not require any tools and fits most trash cans sized 32-95 gallons.
Bears are attracted to these things often due to their smell. With this, you can also use smell to deter bears. If you are interested in this topic, consider reading this article called Will Essential Oils Deter Bears?
Another option is to store your garbage inside until trash day. This is an ordinance in some towns that commonly have bear problems such as Palmer Lake, Colorado.
Animal Carcasses Can Attract Bears
If you’re not familiar with what boneyards are, you probably haven’t lived on or near a farm. Nothing wrong with that! But be advised, boneyards are pretty gnarly.
These yards consist of the carcasses of livestock. Boneyards are typically a dumpsite for the carcasses of animals that have died of disease or illness. Unfortunately, there aren’t any great options for disposing of a cow that weighs hundreds of pounds.
Can you imagine the field day that scavengers and carnivores have stumbling on a boneyard? Both brown bears and black bears are attracted to boneyards, especially if they are unprotected.
There are some benefits to this ghostly boneyard. The carcasses of the animals will be stripped completely, with every last morsel being eaten by a big carnivore, then a smaller carnivore, then a smaller carnivore…you get the point. Everyone eats.
So, it sounds like boneyards aren’t a bad thing. What’s all the fuss?
The downside to having a boneyard is that you are inviting large carnivores to that area. If you have a boneyard on your property, or your neighbor does, you’re going to have bears on your property. This raises the chances of having human-bear conflicts.
As long as you place your boneyard far enough away that there is little chance of human-bear interaction, boneyards are pretty acceptable.
Bears Love The Scent Of Beehives
It’s not just a movie cliche, bears love honey! Honey is naturally sweet and full of beneficial vitamins and essential nutrients that bears need.
Beekeepers should be aware that the scent of their beehives can attract bears. Brown bears seem to find beehives more attractive than black bears, but of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
In a 2005 study, it was found that protected beehives were far less likely to attract or reward prowling bears than unprotected hives. If you are a beekeeper, it’s best practice to build a fence around your beehives to protect them from bears.
If you live in an area with only brown bears, another option is to put your beehives high up as adult brown bears usually cannot climb trees. Surprised? You can read all about it in our article Can Bears Climb Trees? 13 Stunning Facts About Bears.
Livestock Areas/Nearby Water Sources Attract Bears
Black bears, brown bears, and polar bears are all excellent swimmers, with polar bears leading the way with an impressive swim speed of 6 mph! To put it in perspective, the average human swims at about 5-6 mph.
Black and brown bears use water sources as a way to cool off during hot weather as they cannot sweat. The only options they have are to pant and cool off in the water.
Properties that have livestock – sheep and cows in particular – are vulnerable to bear predation. Bears don’t typically go for the full-grown adult sheep or cows, they’ll go after the calves and lambs.
The key here is when livestock yards are located close to a water source. This seems to have the most interactions between bears, people, and livestock.
Even if you just have chickens in your yard, is located next to a river or large creek can attract bears to your chicken coop.
Bears can smell the animals easily, especially when their numbers are in high concentration and their scents are accumulated around the yard. To combat bear encounters, be sure to keep your chickens, ducks, or livestock in a strong, sturdy enclosure.
Bears can be deterred with electrified fences, just be sure to keep them electrified. Bears are known to return and re-test electrified fences, and once they’re down the bear will have free reign in your pastures or coops.
Bears Scavenge Roadkill
There’s nothing quite as pungent as the smell of an animal that had a bad encounter with a vehicle. Roadkill has a strong smell to humans, so we can only imagine how strongly it smells to a bear.
But not all scavenging happens on roadsides. Bears will sniff out animals that have died of old age or disease in forests or open plains.
This can become a particularly hairy situation if you encounter a deceased animal in the woods, say when you’re on a hike. Whether a bear has already found it and fled the scene at your approach, or a bear is on its way, you do not want to come between a bear and its meal.
This can also apply to roadkill that happens to be in your yard. Living on the main road might give you easy access to the road, but it comes at a price.
To keep bears off your property when deceased animals are present, be sure to call your local township and request the carrion be picked up. You can also use our nationwide pest control finder to get you in contact with a wildlife professional near you.
They might not be able to help with the roadkill, but they will certainly be able to point you in the right direction.
Trains Give Out Free Food To Bears
Locomotives are used to transport many things at great distances. One of the things trains carry is agricultural feed for farmers.
No matter if you’re a farmer or not, having spilled agricultural feed near railroad tracks can be dangerous for both wildlife and the locomotives.
Train tracks can attract bears for a few different reasons:
- Spilled agricultural feed
- Carrion (rail-killed)
The abundance of vegetation around train tracks can attract bears due to the presence of berries or other yummy veggies. Invertebrates such as rail-killed ants were found in many scats collected in a 2017 study.
In that same study, they found that grain was present in most of the scats analyzed from bears that frequently used railroad tracks to forage for food.
If you live near train tracks, you may want to prepare yourself for bear sightings and try to avoid walking the tracks alone or without some protection like Mace’s Maximum Strength Bear Spray.
Bears Are Attracted To The Scent Of The Opposite Sex
Many animals use scents and marking to find mates during the mating season. These marking scents will attract males to females and can be smelled from quite a distance.
For brown bears and black bears, the mating season runs from about May to July. For polar bears, mating occurs in April according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
With that being said, all three bears will have delayed implantation until the fall or winter. Sometimes, implantation may not occur until the following year. The timing of implantation all depends on how much fat the mother bear can put on before winter.
During the winter, bears enter a state of torpor where they will not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. They rely solely on their fat reserves to keep them alive and healthy. If a bear doesn’t have the necessary fat stores to keep both her and a newborn cub alive, the egg will not implant.
It’s fairly difficult to avoid these scent markers on your property, as they are not very noticeable to humans. Instead, it’s best practice to be vigilant during the mating season and use the other techniques discussed above, especially during the mating period.
Berry Bushes & Fruit Trees Attract Bears
Black bears and brown bears will forage based on what’s available. They’ll change their diet based on the season and food resources, which is one of the reasons they are so successful, especially black bears.
Berries are high up on the list of a bear’s diet (except the polar bear). Raspberries and blackberries are particularly delicious treats for bears, but they’ll settle for strawberries, blueberries, elderberries, and juneberries as well.
Fruit is another easily smelled-out meal that bears love to consume. Remember, they like anything sweet!
Berry bushes and fruit trees can make a great addition to your yard and provide you with fresh produce. It can also attract the amazing noses of bears.
If you have berry bushes in your yard and are worried about bears, you can either eliminate the bushes or enclose them in a sturdy fence with a roof.
For fruit trees, you’ll want to make sure you pick up any fallen fruit as soon as possible. This may not solve your problem since black bears are excellent climbers, but making the food harder to obtain may encourage the bear to find something easier to eat.
Now that you know the ins and outs of what scents attract bears and what you can do to repel them from the scent, you’re sure to have fewer encounters with these massive carnivores.
Bears play an important role in the ecosystem. The presence of large predators helps balance the pivotal point between predator and prey. Bears also keep smaller predators like coyotes in check.
If you live in bear country, keep a lookout for these 11 scents that attract bears:
- Bird feeders
- Pet food
- Livestock near water
- Agricultural feed & carrion near railroad tracks
- Bears of the opposite sex
- Berry bushes
- Fruit trees
Allowing bears easy access to food makes them less and less wild. This is a concern for both humans and bears, as the chance of human conflict is greater in these situations.
Let’s do our part to keep bears wild!
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Creel, E. M. (2007). Effectiveness of deterrents on the black bear (Ursus americanus) to anthropogenic [Masters Thesis]. ScholarWorks. https://scholarworks.calstate.edu/concern/theses/v979v526x
Murray, M. H., Fassina, S., Hopkins III, J. B., Whittington, J., & St. Clair, C. C. (2017, May 24). Seasonal and individual variation in the use of rail-associated food attractants by grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) in a national park. Plus One. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0175658
Wilson, S. M., Madel, M. J., Mattson, D. J., Graham, J. M., Burchfield, J. A., & Belsky, J. M. (2005). Natural landscape features, human-related attractants, and conflict hotspots: a spatial analysis of human-grizzly bear conflicts. Ursus, 16(1), 117-129.