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Black Bear Territorial Displays

 Black Bears Scratch Beech Trees

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.

Black bears Scratch Beech Trees

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.

Ottauquechee River Basin

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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6 comments

  1. That first photo looks more like deer teethmarks to me. I know they resort to bark when they can't find enough to eat.
    But the second photo, I'm not sure. At the back of my mind, I have a vague idea that bears sharpen and clean their claws on trees like that, and use them to get rid of old and cracked tissue. I could well be wrong though…

  2. Good theory. But the bark stripping goes up above my head, so the deer must be awfully tall, or they're standing on each others shoulders. I like your bear theory better. I read that bears like scratching trees just like cats.

  3. I have an oak tree that looks like that. Mine was hit by lightning and we had bark that was blown over the house and about 200 feet away.

  4. Looks like buck antler rubs to me but if they're over your head I'd think porcupine. To my knowledge bears don't take bark off like that. They use a big tree with coarse bark and put some obvious claw marks high up on it.

    Not sure about the older scars you showed.

  5. They're antler rubs, and depending on the height, they were either from deer, moose, or elk. Possibly caribou, depending on the height. If they were lower to the ground, it was deer; more waist height, it was elk or caribou; if it was head height or higher, it was moose. They rub their antlers on trees to remove the outer membrane. Ungulates also eat the bark off of willow trees because it contains the same medicinal properties as asprin.

  6. I have a Larch about 12 inches in diameter that was maybe scratched and bitten but not stripped. At first I thought a hunter was standing there and did not have anything going on. :)’
    But did not fit someone hunting. Also, the tree was damaged on both sides. I have other larch scattered widely throughout the area and none was damaged. I did not take a photo which I will do today. Interesting!

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