San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide

American Black Bear | Bear Sign
If You Encounter a Bear | Sightings and Status

Bear Signs

Where to Look for Bear Sign

Black bear habitat can include swamps, mountain streams, and woods (especially pinyon-juniper woodland, aspen forests, and oak woodlands). In southern California, look for bear sign along mountain streams and in oak woodlands habitat.

Bear Tracks

Bears are pacers — wide-bodied animals that move both legs on one side of the body at a time (alternating both right limbs then both left). They are plantigrade walkers (like people) — the heel of the back foot lands flat on each step. The track of a bear's back foot looks very similar to a human footprint, although a bear's foot is wider and shorter. Bears have five toes on both the front and rear feet. The "big" toe on a bear is the outer toe. Note: the heel pad of the front foot, the claws, and the fifth (inside) toe often don't register in a track.

The distance between the outer edges of black bear footprints (called trail width) is 14 inches. A black bear's stride (measured from the tip of the foremost toe of one foot to the tip of the same toe of the other foot) is 18 inches when walking and 2-5 feet when it is running. During a slow walk, the bear's hind foot overlaps the front foot; during a fast walk, the hind foot oversteps (lands in front of) the front foot. See drawing:

bear gait, drawing by Mary Zanotelli

Black bears often follow well-established trails. Wide double ruts formed in the grass or the ground are a good indication of a bear trail. In wooded areas, these trails often go under obstructions.

Bears (like people) break twigs and sticks as they walk; watch the trail for broken sticks, then use a magnifier to find closely spaced cracks or bending along twigs, indicating the round, soft footprints made by a bear.

Bear Scat (droppings)

Black bear scat (when firm) is tubular, between 1-3/8 inches and 1-1/2 inches in diameter. (Grizzly bear scat measures 2-1/4 inches.) Because black bears are mostly vegetarian (eating grass, roots, pine nuts, berries, buds, leaves, bark and nuts), bear scat often contains plant matter. Also look for the remains of other common black bear food: insects, eggs, birds, mice, rats, chipmunks, ground squirrels, fish, honeycomb, and carrion. Of course, black bears are known for eating just about anything they can find in a garbage can, so even the unusual item may be found in bear scat. Black bear scat has been known to contain tin cans, pizza boxes, watches, tent screening, zippers, motorcycle chains and even crushed hubcaps!

bear scat, drawing by Mary Zanotelli
Bear scat: between 1-3/8 inches and 1-1/2 inches in diameter

Black Bear Skull

Black bear skulls measure approximately 300 mm (11-3/4-inches long) — depending on the size of the individual. The lower jaw has three incisors, one canine tooth, four premolars and three molars, while the upper jaw has three incisors, one canine, four premolars and only two molars.

Feeding Signs

Watch for rocks and logs that have been turned over or torn apart in a bear's search for ants and beetles. Anthills that have been scooped out are another sign of a bear's presence in an area. Black bears also dig for small animals and plant roots. And don't forget that tipped-over garbage can!

Bear Trees

Besides climbing, black bears often use trees as territory markers and rubbing posts, as well as a food source. Known as "bear trees," these are often found in a prominent spot along a trail.

Watch for claw marks in the soft, smooth bark of climbing trees, and for tooth marks where black bears have used their incisors to scrape the cambium layer of feeding trees. Black bears will often bite and pull off strips of bark on particularly tasty trees like pine, spruce and fir. High claw and tooth marks serve as signposts, advertising the size of a bear and indicating a challenge to rivals.

Bears love a good scratch as much as the next guy, and will rub against trees, bushes, and stumps to satisfy that itch. An established bear tree reveals years of rubs, scratches and bites, and may have long hairs embedded in the cracks.

Other Black Bear Sign

Black bear dens can be found in hollow logs, under fallen trees, or in natural rock caves. Use your nose! Black bears are reported to have a powerful "animal" smell which can linger long after the animal has left the area.

A Field Guide to Animal Tracks — Olaus J. Murie
The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Western US — Janine M. Benyus
Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking — Tom Brown, Jr. with Brandt Morgan
Track Finder — Dorcas Miller
Pacific Coast Mammals — Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen


drawing of black bear track: front foot, by Mary Zanotelli
4-1/2 inches (length) x
4 inches (width)

drawing of black bear track: rear foot, by Mary Zanotelli
6-7/8 inches (length) x
3-1/2 inches (width)

Text and sketches by Mary Zanotelli

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