Thousands of tiny bear cubs are born across our continent as January rolls into February, and they’re all as adorable as you’d expect.
As Tennessee’s Appalachian Bear Rescue exclaims on their social media, “It’s baby bear season! Sows all around the country are denned up and expecting their little ones any day now (if they haven’t already given birth). Last year, ABR received the first cub of 2022 on March 4th. When do you think we will receive our first cub this year?”
Hopefully, 2023 will prove another great year for the species in Appalachia, and ABR won’t need to take in too many cubs. But if any are orphaned or wind up in need, they’ll be here as they have since 1996.
For those of us born to this region, the American black bear is a beloved symbol and fact of life. Countless visitors have witnessed these bruins in their natural habitat within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while tourist-heavy cities like Gatlinburg, TN, and Asheville, NC have more black bears entering urban areas than ever before. But small cubs are a rare sight, as these little ones grow rapidly within their dens before mama bear ever lets them roam the big wide world.
As ABR’s adorable rescue footage shows, black bear cubs are born tiny, hairless, absolutely helpless, and weigh less than half a pound at birth. Typically, a mother bear (or sow) will give birth to a litter of two to three cubs, but a single cub is also common. And before a sow and her cubs are ready to emerge come springtime, the cubs will have rapidly put on weight, weighing around 5 pounds when they first surface.
The Remarkable Lives of American Black Bears: Cub Season
Black bears mate in the summer months, then enter hyperphagia during fall to fatten up for winter. Bears aren’t true hibernators and can awaken during the winter, but still need to den up and rest. Pregnant sows need this especially, as their embryos will not begin developing until they enter a den and their hibernation-like state. During this time, bears won’t eat or drink, and rarely urinate or defecate, if at all. For a mother bear, everything they goes toward the development of their babies instead.
Then comes cub season, when tiny babies are born from mid-January into early February. This is the middle of their winter denning period, and the rest of a mother’s time in the den is dedicated to feeding, cleaning, and rearing her cubs as they grow from that tiny 0.5 pound bean into a 5-pound toddler.
Once the cubs emerge from their den later in February, their growth becomes even more rapid. Black bears grow quickly in general, but their biggest spurt comes in this first year of life, which sees a cub grow from 5 to a good 80 pounds by their first birthday. Cubs will remain with their mother for another 6 to 8 months after as they play, eat, and learn from one another.
And as soon as mom is ready to mate again, the cubs – now yearlings – venture out on their own. By this time, a female black bear will weigh around 100-150 pounds, while males (or boars) rocket up to anywhere from 200 to 400 pounds. Exceptional males, however, can weigh anywhere from 500 to an astounding 800 pounds.
For more on the American black bear’s life cycle, see our National Parks Journal: Great Smoky Mountains Black Bears are Emerging from Hibernation next.