Ralph Gardner Jr: A Visit From A Bear

Mar 18, 2017

Ralph's bird feeder, smashed by a bear
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

I was planning to devote this commentary to snow. As I write we’re anticipating a foot or more in the Hudson Valley and a blizzard in New York City. Though given our wacky weather by the time we air it might be eighty and sunny.

But on my way to celebrating the magic of snow – it’s something I never take for granted and don’t understand those who complain as if were just another commuter nightmare – I got waylaid by another natural phenomenon: bears.

In short, I woke us this morning to find most of my bird feeders trashed.

The sturdy metal pole supporting one of them was bent to the ground. Two expensive but beautiful egg-shaped ceramic feeders, one red the other purple, were smashed to smithereens. And the copper parts of another feeder were contorted and its heavy plastic cylinder, which held sunflower seeds, was broken. But even more impressive was that the metal arm that supported it had been ripped straight off the tree where it was hanging.

Isn’t it a bit early in the season for bears to be causing mischief? Aren’t they still supposed to be hibernating?

But even more impressive is that we live in a part of the Hudson Valley not given to many bear sightings. In fact, I’ve only seen a bear once since I started visiting my grandparents here in the late 1950’s.

That was about twenty years ago when my wife spotted it on our tree line and I came running. The mid-summer visitor was a handsome and healthy looking black bear that had apparently discovered our compost pile.

When he saw me he lumbered off, casting a casual glance over his shoulder, and kept going.

Unfortunately, this visit came in the middle of the night. Actually, that’s incorrect. I now realize that what I thought was the sound of a light bulb breaking around 10 p.m. – I was in our living room reading the newspaper, and while I considered the sound unusual I was too lazy to investigate – was the bear smashing one of the ceramic feeders.

If I’d simply stood up, rather than continuing to read a story in the New York Times about the discovery in a Cairo slum of a buried 26-foor statue suspected to be a likeness of Pharaoh Ramses II, interesting though the account was, I would have gotten to see the marauder and also probably limited much of his, or her, damage.

My wife went to bed early and also missed the action. But the next morning, as I surveyed the destruction in the frigid air, I wasn’t the only one who realized that something, if not phenomenal, at least out of the ordinary had occurred.

Our dog sniffed at the ground with even more curiosity than usual, as if appreciating that the trespasser was a different order of magnitude than her perennial nemesis – a flying squirrel that visits the copper feeder, now lying in parts on the frozen earth.

Most interesting of all were the birds. They flocked to the feeders, or what was left of them, in profusion. Attracted to all the spilled seed that the bear had missed, now scattered on the ground.

I even spotted my first red-winged blackbird of the season, joining the mourning doves, blue jays and juncos at breakfast.

There was something almost joyous about their behavior. If the bear’s visit constituted an attack, then the birds were like doctors and nurses suturing the wound, the healing process already underway.

I’ve heard stories about bears attacking bird feeders. But I was always smug because, as I said, we don’t get many bears around here, and also because I remove the feeders come Memorial Day so they’re not around to attract the predators during the summer.

The incident gave rise to two questions. Will the bear be back – I managed to right the bent pole feeder (more or less) and can repair the copper one – and should I invest in new ceramic feeders?

Was the bear just passing through or has he added our property to his list of menu options?

Perhaps I’ll wait a while to replace the pricey ones, painful though their absence will be. Just in case the animal returns.

But you can’t live in fear. And whatever damage he may have caused is far outweighed by the presence of all those birds that cleaned up after his visit.

I’d tend to be angry if anybody else had caused such damage. Instead, I’m mildly elated at the bear’s house call. It served as a relatively economical reminder that it’s never shrewd to be complacent in the face of nature. And also that I’m lucky to live someplace where unforeseen encounters with wildlife can still occur.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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