About the Bears
(and Other Animals)

Hundreds of times in a summer season, a visitor will buttonhole a ranger and ask, "Are there any bears?"

Ranger: Well, yes, we have bears here.
Visitor: How many?

Whatever the answer, the visitor will be vaguely discontented with it. Trouble is, he didn't ask the right questions. He doesn't really care how many bears there are; he wants to know whether he's likely to see a bear, and is it going to be dangerous, and if so what should he do about it, and if not where can he go to see one. This is a complicated subject. To sort it out, why don't you (Q) interview me (A) on the subject of bears.

Q: So, how many bears are in the Park?
A: Who knows? The Park boundary is hundreds of miles long. Bears come and go, and mostly stay out of sight.

Q: An estimate, then.
A: In summer, about 250-300.

Q: What's your estimate based on?
A: By a bear population study.

Q: Tell about the study. Who made it?
A: Park rangers, working with people from the Virginia state wildlife commission. Bears were captured, tranquilized, marked with a metal tag in the ear and a tattoo inside the lower lip, measured, weighed, relieved of one small and relatively unused tooth, detranquilized, and released.

Q: Why the tooth?
A: They can tell the bear's age from a cross section of it.

Q: And they kept on capturing bears until all the bears were tagged?
A: No, that would be impossible. But after fifty or sixty had been tagged the number of "repeats" increased, until most of the bears that were captured had already been tagged. From that, an expert can estimate how many bears would have to be tagged before the number of "repeats" rose to a hundred percent.

Q: What kind of bears do we have in Shenandoah?
A: Only one kind: the black phase of the Eastern Black Bear, Ursus americanus. (It's Euarctos americanus in some books, but all experts agree on the common name "Black Bear".)

Q: No grizzlies?
A: None.

Q: And the bears that killed two young women in one of the western parks a few year ago were...
A: Grizzlies.

Q: You said something about bears becoming dangerous.
A: Bears are incredibly strong, and intelligent. Park bears are not tame; they are wild animals that have, in various degrees, lost their fear of man. That makes them potentially dangerous.

Q: But they don't actually attack people. Do they?
A: I've never heard of an unprovoked attack. But it's the bear, not you, who decides when he's provoked. Let's say, for example, that you want to be nice to a bear, so you start feeding him hotdogs. And sometime later you decide to stop feeding him hotdogs and save a few for yourself. The bear might consider that a serious provocation. He might insist on eating the rest, and he would use whatever force he thought necessary to get them.

Q: You suggested that some bears are more dangerous than others?
A: An occasional bear may grow so fearless as to drive people away from a picnic table and eat their food.

Q: If that happens to me, what should I do?
A: Leave the table, and let the bear have your food. Notify a ranger.

Q: There's nothing I can do to save my supper?
A: You can yell at the bear, or bang on metal pans; that might scare him away. But a bear that bold has heard enough yelling and banging to know they're harmless.

Q: Has anyone been injured by a bear in the Park?
A: I've heard of several incidents. If a bear smells food inside a tent, he's likely to rip a hole in the side of it and walk in. Anyone inside the tent is in danger of getting stepped on. So never keep food in the tent, not even a candy bar. Don't eat in the tent, even if it's raining. Never let the smell of food get into your tent. Keep your food in the trunk of your car.

Q: How about a strong metal ice chest?
A: A bear can probably open your ice chest. If not he can give it a severe beating, or carry it off. Bears sometimes break up or carry off empty ice chests, because they associate their shape with food.

Q: Any injuries other than getting stepped on?
A: I heard of a man who found a bear eating his food off the picnic table. The man picked up a stick and hit the bear with it. The bear countered with a left hook to the chest. The man went down, scratched and bruised, and the bear continued eating.

Q: And the man's mistake was...
A: He violated one of the cardinal principles of Machiavelli, which I can paraphrase like this: Don't take a swing at a powerful enemy unless you're sure you can knock him out with your first punch.

Q: Any more incidents?
A: A seasonal ranger stepped outside his trailer and started off on some errand in total darkness. He either walked into a bear or realized he was about to do so. He spun around and ran as fast as he could, right into a tree. Bruises, cuts, and contusions.

Q: And his error was...
A: He should have carried a flashlight.

Q: What should I do if I meet a bear on the trail?
A: Talk, or sing, or make some other noise to let him know you're there, and that you're human. Bears are nearsighted. The danger is that a bear might get close before he's aware of your presence, and then be startled.

Q: If he keeps coming toward me on the trail, what then?
A: I suggest that you step well off the trail, and yield the right of way.

Q: Would you care to summarize your bear wisdom concisely?
A: I'd love to. Don't feed the bears. Never take food into your tent; keep food locked in the trunk of your car. Never get between a mother bear and her cubs. Don't take a bear by surprise; let him know you're there. If you're having trouble with a bear make noise, but DON'T ATTACK OR THREATEN IT. If a bear just won't leave you alone, you can be sure it's interested in your food, not you. The quickest way out of trouble is to abandon the food; walk away from it, and let the bear have it. Do not seek the company of bears; avoid them when you can.

Q: But let's say that I like bears, and want to watch them. Where can I go to see bears?
A: In all seriousness, I recommend the Zoological Park of any large city. Bears sometimes come to campgrounds, especially at Mathews Arm and Loft Mountain, but the Park is doing what it can to discourage them. The trash cans are bearproof, and regulations require that you keep food where the bears can't get it. If you camp in the backcountry, string up your food between two trees, high off the ground.

Q: A bear in the backcountry—what does he find to eat?
A: Ants, grubs, beetles, and sometimes honey. Some roots, some bulbs, and the stems and leaves of some plants. Fruits, nuts, and berries. In the fall in Shenandoah they eat large quantities of apples. In the winter, acorns provide most of the calories. They eat carrion when they can find it, and small mammals when they can catch them, which isn't often. A bear would have no chance of catching a deer that wasn't sick or injured.

Q: You say they eat acorns in the winter. Don't they hibernate?
A: No. In colder climates a bear may spend most of the winter sleeping, but would probably leave its shelter on milder days. In Shenandoah, a bear might stay under cover for several days at a time in bad weather. But bears don't hibernate in the sense that groundhogs do—that is, their body temperature, pulse, and respiration never drop far below normal.

Q: Do bears have any natural enemies?
A: Outside the Park boundary, there's a bear-hunting season every fall. Inside the Park their only natural enemies are old age and other bears.

Q: Bears attack each other?
A: You bet. And there's one thing more I want to get on record. I once saw a bear's nest.

Q: You're kidding.
A: No. It was in the Big Meadows Swamp, in winter. There was nearly a foot of snow on the ground. The bear had scooped out a hollow in the snow, about four feet in diameter. And he had dug up dry grass from under the snow, and used it to line the nest.

Q: How do you know a bear did it?
A: The nest was surrounded by bear tracks and droppings, and had obviously been used for several days.

Q: You took pictures, of course?
A: I made a number of exposures. I have regretted, since, that there was no film in the camera.

 The Mountain Lion

The mountain lion (or cougar) is thought to be extirpated in this area. In the Blue Ridge they were wiped out well before the Civil War. In the wilder parts of Virginia a few of them lasted into the twentieth century. but barely.

Nevertheless, reports of cougar sightings in the Park keep coming in. Several visitors each year report seeing a cougar on a trail or fire road. When asked to describe it, one of the first things they mention is the long, thick tail; which means for sure that it wasn't a bobcat they saw. Many of the observers have had enough training in zoology to make them reliable witnesses. A reliable witness has heard the scream of a mountain lion. Reliable witnesses have found and measured its tracks. I have twice found a deer kill that was almost surely the work of a mountain lion.

But no hunter in Virginia has shot a mountain lion; no one has found a dead one; and no one has taken a recognizable picture of one. To me the evidence that it lives in Shenandoah, or at least passes through from time to time, is overwhelming.

 The Deer

There are probably more than a thousand deer in the Park. and possibly two thousand—all of the same species, the Virginia white-tail. The tail is broad, and white underneath; when held aloft it's a signal flag that means "follow me". A fawn can follow its mother at a fast pace through broken cover without getting lost—by following the white flag. I once saw a couple of hound dogs chasing a buck and two does through Milam Gap, and all three were showing their white tails. Suddenly the two does veered off to one side and lowered their tails. The buck continued straight ahead, his "follow me" flag waving. And the hound dogs followed the buck.

Your chances of seeing a deer on the trail are good, especially in fairly open woods near the top of the mountain. If you walk slowly and quietly you may suddenly become aware that a deer is watching you. If you now stand still and make no sudden movements the deer will probably stay put, and may even resume feeding. If you move closer it will bound away, springing over brush and fallen trees with such grace that it almost seems to float slow motion through the air.

Deer like semi-open places, rather than meadows or deep woods. It's hard to drive any distance on Skyline Drive without seeing one, especially near the developed areas. When you see one ahead, beside the Drive, please slow down; the deer may become alarmed and bound away when your car gets close. and it will often choose to bound across the road in front of you.

In the developed areas deer are sometimes surprisingly tame, especially those in the Loft Mountain campground. But it's better to keep your distance. Making wild animals dependent and trusting is not doing them a favor. Besides, any food you might have to offer is, for a deer, junk food.


Two kinds, red and gray. The red fox is uncommon in the Park, It prefers open spaces and, apparently, lower altitudes. The gray fox, which does well in the woods, is common. In my opinion the gray is the more attractive of the two, with delicate shadings of gray, white, and rusty red. They're shy, and move about mostly at night, so that seeing one requires a little luck, But in many places, such as the Big Meadows area, if you're out just before dark and watching the road or trail well ahead, you may be lucky.


Two species, striped and spotted. The striped skunk is larger and much more common—the one you're probably familiar with. You may occasionally see a skunk in the daytime, but they prefer darkness. You're most likely to see one in the light of your headlights on the Drive, or in the campgrounds. Skunks are not at all shy, for several reasons: they're nearsighted, they're moderately stupid, and they're formidably armed.

But skunks are inoffensive and slow to anger. Several times, as a test, I've walked to within a foot or two (slowly, of course) of a feeding skunk; every time, he ignored me completely. A skunk will spray only if a larger animal actually seizes it or seems about to do so, or if it's hit by a car. But a skunk will often threaten a possible enemy, and that's sometimes as effective as spraying. There are four ways to threaten. First, by snapping the teeth, like a terrier. Second, repeatedly striking the ground with both front feet. Third, flicking the tail. Finally, raising the tail, spinning around, and backing toward the enemy.

Here are some incidents that I've observed, most of them dozens of times, that tell something about the character of the striped skunk.

  1. Skunk No. 1 is feeding. Skunk No. 2 approaches. Skunk No. 1 threatens by snapping. No. 2 turns and walks away. ("Walks" doesn't quite describe it. A moving skunk somehow resembles a giant caterpillar.)
  2. Skunk No. 1 is feeding. Skunk No. 2 approaches, and threatens by striking the ground repeatedly with his front feet. No. 1 ignores him. No. 2 turns and walks away.
  3. A skunk is feeding, and a fox approaches. The skunk threatens by snapping, or by flicking his tail. The fox walks away.
  4. A fox is feeding. A skunk approaches and threatens. The fox leaves, and the skunk begins to feed.
  5. (I saw this only once.) A possum is feeding. A skunk approaches and threatens, and the possum ignores him. The skunk turns around and raises his tail. The possum ignores him. The skunk backs up and sticks his behind in the possum's face. The possum opens his mouth and takes a big bite. The skunk shrieks with pain and runs off.

In none of the encounters that I've observed has the spray been released. If you're camping at Big Meadows in late winter you may hear squeals in the night, often followed by a strong smell of skunk. Late winter is the mating season. When two males meet, they may engage in a good rough-and-tumble fight, snapping and biting, and squealing with anger. But what you smell, I'm convinced, is just leakage due to excitement, rather than deliberate spraying.

The spotted skunk is rather uncommon, and much smaller—about the size of a large squirrel—black, irregularly spotted with white, and irresistibly attractive. (I'm tempted to say "cute", but I won't.) It can spray, and it gets as much respect from foxes as the larger striped skunk. Its threatening gesture consists of a handstand; it actually balances on its two front paws, and can hold that position for some time. The spotted skunk is a southern animal; the Park is the northern limit of its range. (The Park is the southern limit for other things. If you show me a picture of a spotted skunk under a gray birch tree, I'll tell you where you took it. Big Meadows. It couldn't happen anywhere else.)

Inoffensive though skunks may be, I suggest that you keep your distance. Fifteen feet is close enough. If you watch through binoculars from fifteen feet, it's like having a skunk in your lap. On the other hand, if you find yourself unexpectedly very close to a skunk, don't be alarmed. Just hold still, and wait for it to go away.

 And Other Mammals

Bobcat. Fairly common, but shy. You may see one from your car at night. They are sometimes seen on the trails, especially in later winter; that's mating season, and they get bolder.

Raccoon. Fairly common. The best place to see one is beside the Drive after dark. They sometimes pass through the campgrounds during the night.

Beaver, I'd call this a rare species in the Park.

Groundhog (or Woodchuck). Quite common in clearings and beside the Drive. They often eat within a few feet of the pavement, and pay no attention to passing cars. (As long as they keep moving, that is. If you slow down or stop, the groundhog will disappear down its hole.)

Chipmunk. Very common. On a long summer hike you'll probably see dozens of them; they'll scold you with a Chittering sound that could be mistaken for a bird call. In late summer you may hear a slow, steady "chock, chock, chock .... " at some distance in the woods. That, too, is a chipmunk.

 More About Mammals

If you'd like to know more about the mammals, check the sales literature at either Visitor Center.

A Field Guide to the Mammals, by William H. Burt and Richard P. Grossenheider. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 284 pages. Color plates and range maps. Useful.

A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus J. Murie. (Peterson Field Guide Series); 376 pages, pen-and-ink drawings. Tracks are less interesting than the animals that make them, but they're sometimes a lot easier to find— especially when there's snow on the ground.

 The Birds

Shenandoah National Park is a moderately rewarding place for bird- watchers; we have about 200 species. You can buy a checklist of birds at either of the Visitor Centers. For serious birdwatching you'll need a field book, a pair of binoculars, and, if possible, a tendency to get up early in the morning. I can help you with only the first of these requirements. The sales outlets have a number of books on birds, including the following:

Field Guide to the Birds of North America, the National. Geographic Society. 463 pages of color illustrations, descriptions, and maps. Comprehensive and useful.

Birds of North America, by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brunn, and Herbert S. Zim. (A Golden Field Guide.) 360 pages. Range maps and color illustrations. For each bird, the description and the picture are on facing pages, which makes the book easy to use.

A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 384 pages. This book covers all the birds of eastern and central North America, and all of them are illustrated in color. The illustrations have distinguishing field marks indicated, which makes identification easier.

Following are some brief notes, from my personal observation, on a few birds that might come to your attention here even if you're not a serious birdwatcher.

 The Soaring Birds

The soaring birds float on currents of air, rarely flapping their wings. You're sure to see them if you climb to a peak or a cliff and then sit quietly for a while. Hightop and Stony Man are especially good. Vultures and ravens sail by in front of you, sometimes surprisingly close. Here's how to tell them apart:

Turkey vulture (or "buzzard"). Wingspan up to six feet; tail rather long and narrow. The wings, as seen from below, are two-toned: black and dark gray. When an adult flies close you'll see its red head. (The head of the young is black.) It has two habits that distinguish it from other soaring birds in the Park. First, it soars with its wings forming a flattened "V", rather than straight out from the body. Second, it rocks and tilts as it soars, as if trying to keep its balance.

Black vulture. Less common than the turkey vulture, and a little smaller and heavier, so that it flaps more and soars less. And whereas the flapping of the turkey vulture seems slow and easy, that of the black vulture seems quick and labored. Its tail is rather short and square. Its best distinguishing mark is a whitish patch on the underside of each wing, near the tip.

Both vultures are useful scavengers, and contrary to superstition they do not spread disease. Neither vulture, as far as I know, makes any vocal sound except a grunting noise when it's disturbed. Some day, when you're hiking after a rain, you may be treated to an unforgettable sight—a flock of vultures perched in a tree with wings spread out to dry.

Raven. Smaller than the vultures, and pure black; its tail, as seen from below, is large and wedge-shaped. Its soaring ability is limited: it alternately soars and flaps. Except, that is, near the steep western slopes of the mountain, where strong updrafts are common. There, all three birds can soar for long minutes without a single flap.

From a distance, a raven looks very much like a crow. When you see the two together it's obvious that the raven is nearly twice as big; when you see only one, there's room for doubt. The call of the crow is a high-pitched caw or cah. The raven has a lower-pitched call, a hoarse croak: cr-r-r-uck, or possibly gr-r-ronk. That's an early warning call; you're not likely to hear it on the cliffs where the birds are soaring. But as you hike through the woods, a raven may fly over so low that you can hear the air whistling through its wingtips, and it will croak to spread the word of your presence. (The raven language has at least a dozen words, but the early warning call is the only one you're likely to hear.)

 The Wild Turkey

This is by far the largest bird in the Park. Except for a few minor details it looks just like the domestic turkey. Although it's fairly common in all parts of the Park, it's reported most often from the North Section. The turkey is not very good at flying, and except when it's in immediate danger it prefers to walk or run. You may occasionally see a single turkey, or a flock of them, on the trails. If you hold still you'll be able to watch them for quite a while as they run, or walk, away from danger. They are said to travel in flocks of from six to fifteen birds. But I've often seen single birds, and twice I've seen a flock of more than thirty.

During breeding season—early spring—a flock consists of the dominant male in the area plus his harem. In April, in the early morning, you may hear the male turkey gobble to assemble his flock, just before or just after he leaves the roost for the day.

 The Ruffed Grouse

The grouse is a large, reddish-brown relative of the chicken. And it looks like one, especially when you see it crossing the Skyline Drive, where it tends to be a rather careless pedestrian. In the woods, it usually stays under cover. When a grouse is hidden near the trail it will wait till you get close, then take off suddenly with a loud whir of wings that can be truly startling. In late spring and early summer, when the chicks are still small, the mother puts on a skillful "broken wing" act; as you approach she flops pitifully ahead, hoping to lead you away from the chicks.

Some day, as you walk a mountain trail in spring, you may suddenly become aware of your own heartbeat, and note with mild alarm that it's beating faster and faster. But it isn't your heart, it's the drumming of a male grouse. He drums to attract a female, or to announce possession of territory, or both. The grouse mounts some favorite low perch, grasps it firmly so as not to fly away, and then beats the air with his wings, faster and faster; thump ..... thump .... thump... thump.. thump, thump thump- rup-rup-rup-rrrrrrrrrr.

 The Woodcock

The woodcock, a relative of the snipe, is one of the first migratory birds to return to Shenandoah in the spring. It has a chunky body, a large head, short neck and legs; and a ridiculously long beak, which it thrusts into soft moist earth in search of worms. The tip of the upper mandible moves independently, so that the woodcock can grasp a worm under ground and pull it out. The plumage is barred and mottled with buff, brown, gray, and black—the color of leaves and duff of the forest floor. The bird is so well camouflaged that he seems to think he's invisible. You can sometimes get close enough to touch him before he will fly.

From mid-March to the end of April, in the partly open places such as Big Meadows, the woodcock does his sky dance, a courtship ritual. The light has to be just right. When the sun is down, and the evening star first appears, that's the time to start. The dance will go on for half an hour, until it gets too dark. (Unless there's a full moon, when it may go on all night.)

The dance begins with the male woodcock on the ground, where he will periodically give a call that's been variously represented as peent, or beezp, or "a Bronx cheer under water". I'd call it a loudly-voiced bzzzzp. Then the woodcock springs into the air and spirals upward, the wind whistling through his wings, his windsong getting louder and shriller as he reaches the top of his flight, some 300 feet above the ground. A pause; then he dives, darts, and zig-zags quickly downward, now with a clear warbling whistle added to the windsong. Then silence, and you know he's on the ground. Then bzzzzp again, in preparation for another flight.

 The Herps

"Herps" is a slang term for reptiles and amphibians—which is to say lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, toads, and salamanders—the subject matter of the science of herpetology. Among the books available at the Visitor Centers is:

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America, by Roger Conant and Joseph Collins. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 450 pages. Description of 595 species with 656 color illustrations.


Invertebrates other than insects are of interest to so few people that I won't discuss them here. Shenandoah is not rich in insect species, compared with the more varied habitats in the Valley. Nevertheless there's enough here to keep you busy if entomology is your hobby. Among the books available at the Visitor Centers is:

A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico, by Donald J. Borrer and Richard E. White. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 404 pages, with black-and-white drawings and color plates. A good, useful introduction to entomology.

 A Note on Collecting

The Park rule against collecting applies to everything—including insects. An exception might be made for a professional entomologist associated with a university or a government agency. If that describes you, write to Headquarters for information about a collecting permit.

I recommend that you collect insects as I do—on Kodachrome film, using a 35 mm camera and macro lens. Chasing butterflies with a net may be good exercise for your legs; getting closeup pictures of them is a perfect exercise for your patience.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved