Last weekend, I saw a curious thing on the Appalachian Trail near the Ottauquechee River in Vermont: a series of young beech trees that had been freshly stripped of their bark. The damage was clearly not man-made and just a few yards down the trail I saw another beech tree with similar damage that had healed over. I immediately suspected that this was the work of black bears, but the reason was elusive.
Beech trees are one of the largest producers of nuts in a hardwood forest but they only bear fruit in the autumn and this is when bears gorge on them to build up fat reserves before hibernating for the winter. In early spring, food sources for bears are scarce and they mainly browse on leafy greens that spring up first near streams and in boggy areas. Therefore I figure that fresh scratches on beech trees in spring are most likely territorial displays.
I am surprised by the fact that these trees were marked so close to a road since bears shy away from human contact. Going out on a limb, I would guess that the bear that made these marks was trying to prevent other bears from reaching the river basin below, which is a lush spring feeding ground. Judging by the amount of moose and bear scat I saw that day on the way down the trail, it looks like this section of the AT is a major game trail, and multiple species must feed in the river plain.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I am an amateur naturalist, but I think this line of reasoning makes sense. Is there a naturalist or hunter in the house with a better explanation for the clawed beech trees?
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