The Grizzlies of Mount McKinley
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The Family


Breeding Season

The breeding season of grizzlies in McKinley National Park extends from mid-May to early July. The earliest date on which a breeding pair was seen together is 14 May, and the latest is 10 July. In 17 seasons I have seen 51 pairs. Of these, 35 were seen only once.

I have divided the breeding season into five periods, and tabulated the number of pairs seen in each period. (Nine pairs were seen in two of these periods and two pairs in three of the periods, so these 11 pairs are recorded in more than one.)

Pairs seen in different periods:

14 May to 22 May3 pairs
23 May to 31 May10 pairs
1 June to 10 June19 pairs
11 June to 20 June16 pairs
21 June to 30 June15 pairs
1 July to 10 July4 pairs

Thus a major part of the breeding, according to these records, takes place in the last week of May and during June.

Duration of Matings

The duration of the mating period is variable. A female that bred with two males was attended by one of the males for about 23 days. A male that mated with two females over a minimum period of 21 days was accompanied by one for 15 days (for the last 3 days this female apparently had finished breeding), the other one also for 15 days. Other pairs were seen over a period of about a week or longer but their total breeding period was not ascertained.

Mating among bears seems to be a strictly physical activity. I have seen little indication of fondness between the sexes. When the relatively short mating period is over, no further companionship takes place. The male is not needed as a provider of food—which possibly is a factor in the business-like mating arrangement of grizzlies.

Breeding Interval

My evidence indicates that females followed by cubs have a minimum breeding interval of 3 years, but generally longer. This minimum 3-year breeding interval may be deduced from the following data. Only 3 of the 54 breeding females had cubs nearby. Each of these three sets of cubs was at least 2 and possibly 3 years old. If mothers bred every other year, there would have been yearlings with mated pairs or away from their mothers on their own. However, all yearlings noted were seen with their mothers, and with mothers that were not mated.

Sixty-nine mothers were seen with 2-year-old cubs. Of these, 25 still had their cubs after the breeding season (10 July), and others with cubs were seen near the end of the breeding season. For these 25 females the breeding interval was at least 4 years. Some families with 2-year-old cubs that were last seen early in the summer may well have been with the mothers after the breeding season but escaped observation. Five mothers were each followed by a 3-year-old cub so their breeding interval was known to be at least 4 years.

One mother was known to get rid of her two 2-year-old cubs in May and breed again, so her breeding interval was 3 years.

Breeding Behavior

Males Searching for Females: During the mating season one occasionally may see a big male traveling steadily with long deliberate strides, obviously searching the countryside for a female. Many of the females, those with spring and yearling cubs and at least some with 2-year-old cubs, are not available. As a consequence, each year the males have only a fraction of the female population from which to find a mate. This situation results in considerable searching by the less fortunate males who do not happen to meet up early with a receptive female. A few observations of males seeking mates may serve to show some of this behavior. I expect that a female may occasionally be on the lookout for a male, but more often a male is with the female before she is ready to breed.

On 26 May 1961 at 7:45 a.m., I started to watch a large, dark male striding westward on the flats of Polychrome Pass. He seemed to be following a trail. He appeared on top of a spur ridge and on the way down negotiated a snowfield in two long slides. When again out on the flats, he had his nose to the ground and made many turns as though following a trail. At 9:25 a.m., he arrived at a spot where I had earlier seen a bear that appeared to be a female. It was apparent that he was following this bear's trail, but she had disappeared some distance to the south. Later, he circled a few times, made a short rush toward 2 caribou, then ignored 35 or 40 caribou. At 12:30 p.m., he laid down on an isolated patch of snow just large enough for a bed. At 3p.m., he began to move again, came to where he had apparently lost the trail earlier, and circled there. By now the female was far to the south, digging roots. I left the scene at 4:30 p.m., leaving the male circling and gradually approaching the other bear. For almost 9 hours the male had not eaten, very unusual under other circumstances, but it appeared that he was concentrating on finding a mate.

On 12 June 1961, a large, dark male hurriedly crossed 2 miles of flat country, made a circle near the north end of East Branch Range, traveled a half-mile toward me, and disappeared in the spruces. In 10 minutes he returned and moved over toward his earlier trail. He seemed eager and in a hurry. He alternately walked rapidly, trotted, or galloped. When trotting, his huge, fat bulk rolled loosely. Most of the time he seemed to be following a trail. He entered a pond, shook himself in the water, but on emerging did not take time to shake, his soaked hair lying flattened against the hide, the water streaming off as he walked. For 1-1/2 hours he hurried along, apparently quite impatient. The day before I had seen a blond bear here which could have been a female, judging from its size and general appearance.

On 27 May 1960, a large, very blond male traveled up Igloo Creek and over Sable Pass in the early afternoon. Later, I saw him moving westward along the base of Sable Mountain. At 8:30 p.m., he was walking steadily along the base of the East Fork sheep hills. He dropped down on the river bar and at 9:40 p.m., still traveling steadily, disappeared around a bend in the river. During the afternoon and evening he had traveled up Igloo Creek, then 4 or 5 miles across to East Fork (I do not know what, if any, detours he may have made) and down East Fork which flows roughly parallel to Igloo Creek. His travels had taken him on a u-shaped course. I saw him take only a few bites of vegetation during the 2 hours that I watched. He was a stranger and I did not see him again.

On the flats of Polychrome Pass, on 31 May 1963, I saw a large, dark male following a small, blond female a half-mile ahead of him. The female turned sharply toward a group of about 100 caribou and chased after them at full gallop. She appeared to have captured a young calf that had not tried to escape, for she stopped and fed. In the meantime, the male followed slowly, occasionally stopping to scratch his back on a boulder. When he was 200 yards away from the female, she stood up, looked at him, and galloped away with the remains of a carcass in her jaws. Some distance up the slope she turned at right angles and was lost in the broken terrain. He followed her trail until he also disappeared at the same spot where I had lost sight of her. Apparently, these animals had not paired off at this time, but the male's persistence suggested that the female soon would welcome his attentions.

One big male seen toward the end of the breeding season apparently had ceased to search. Perhaps he had finished a mating or given up for other reasons. From 25 to 28 June he fed and rested on the carcass of a bull caribou. The 4 days of gorging were perhaps just what he needed after a strenuous season.

Travels of Mated Pairs: Movements of mated bears probably vary a great deal. If a pair mates during a food transition period, it is possible that some shifting of range occurs, such as from a favorite rooting area to another area where green forage is becoming available. On 14 May 1961, a pair was seen to move about 2 miles to a choice rooting bar about 1 mile long, where it stayed for 2 weeks.

A male, mated with two females, remained in an area less than 3 miles in diameter for 21 days. These bears were seen at this location before and after this mating period. Another mating pair was observed to shift its hub of activities a distance of about 10 miles.

Quite often, I observed a pair on the move, the female leading and the male following methodically some distance behind. On 15 June 1948 I saw for the first time a large male and a female on Sable Pass. She was moving away in long gallops as he galloped after her. Once she stopped and faced him as she sat on her haunches; he stopped until she again hurried away. They disappeared over a distant skyline and I did not see them again. The fact that I saw many pairs only once in this open country suggests that their movement is considerable.

On 28 May 1963, as Dr. Frank Darling and I were climbing Primrose Ridge, we saw a pair also climbing the ridge, moving up the draw to one side of us. The female moved along steadily in the lead. We lost sight of them when they went out of view toward the top of the ridge, and we did not see them again.

On 24 June 1963, as I was approaching the Toklat River, a dark female galloped off a ridge and out on the river bar. Some 100 yards to the rear she was followed by a big, dark male. Out on the bar he moved to the up-river side and she turned and followed the stream northward for a few hundred yards, climbed far up a slope, made a loop and returned to the bar. She crossed the river bar, he all the time 100 yards or more behind, and they disappeared into a wooded slope. For much of the time spent on the flats, the bears galloped, crossing the streams with much splashing.

Thus we find mated bears both sedentary and traveling. The movements observed probably are somewhat dependent on their mating stage.

Playing Coy: On 17 May 1961 at 8:40 a.m., I discovered a large, dark male with a blond female on the East Fork River bar. They were lying about 30 yards apart. He sat up, looked around, then approached the female. She walked away 10 yards, made a sharp turn, and lay down. He stopped and stood about 8 yards from her—too near, for she walked slowly away. She led the way to the edge of the river bar and fed on roots. He moved about in a draw and behaved as though there was an interesting scent in the air, which there was, for after he had trailed around considerably and dug roots, he found the carcass of a calf moose in the brush. Once, when he passed about 10 yards in front of the female, she made a bluffing lunge forward, striking the ground hard with both forefeet as bears often do when they are warning or bluffing humans. At times they fed 10 yards apart. At 10:25 a.m., both bears moved out on overflow ice covering parts of the bar. He quit following her and moved up river. When he sat down she moved to within 4 or 5 yards, but when he started to move toward her, she jumped away a few yards, then approached him and repeated the maneuver, as though she was teasing him. They again dug roots and moved a quarter-mile up the river bar. At 11:30 a.m., he followed her and she retreated. He moved away to a bluff where he fed on a moose calf. A little later, both bears were out of our view. This male spent considerable time feeding on roots and the carcass of a moose calf.

On 18 May these bears were near the place where they were last seen the previous day. The big male crossed the ice; 5 minutes later the female followed. On shore she walked close to him but then retreated when he moved toward her. When she went out on the ice, he spent 5 or 6 minutes herding her away from the shore. Once she made a romping charge toward him and he made a few jumps away, but then approached her. She finally reached shore and dug roots whenever she had a few minutes of peace. She crossed and re-crossed the wide river bar to avoid him, continually acting coy. We left them as they continued maneuvering in this fashion.

The following day, a quarter-mile up a long slope, the two bears were continuing their love play. When the male stopped following her, she would move toward him. When he lay down, she sat 25 yards from him. Thus we left them and did not see them the following days.

Two Males Breed with One Female: I have described elsewhere (Murie 1961) the behavior of two males that bred with one female. The female first was attended by a small male that bred with her. Later, a large male followed the pair persistently and also was observed breeding with the female. The last day the bears were observed, the large male apparently tolerated the smaller male, a rather unusual situation. The mating period extended from about 19 May to at least 10 June, the last day the bears were seen together.

Males Acquiring More Than One Mate: On 7 June 1967, a large, brown male and a blond female were seen digging roots on the Toklat River bar. He followed the female several times but, for the most part, seemed content to feed or rest nearby. A second blond bear, perhaps slightly smaller than the female, also was digging roots about 300 yards from the pair. I watched these three bears again on 9 June for about 7 hours when all three were again digging roots at Toklat. The second blond bear approached the female several times and they touched noses amicably. The male was not too concerned about the second blond, but when he approached them, the blond would run a short distance away. The male showed more interest in the female, following her repeatedly, and standing over her when she sat down. Eventually, all three bears lay down on a hillside, the male and female side by side, with the other blond about 300 yards away.

When I reached Toklat at 3:15 a.m. the next day, the male and female were copulating and the other blond was about 400 yards from them; he walked about a mile and stopped. The male remained mounted on the female for 25 minutes, occasionally thrusting. They separated and the female began to dig roots. The male moved off out of sight for about 45 minutes, then reappeared on the river bar, moving in the direction taken earlier by the other blond bear. He smelled the ground at intervals, as though following the trail of the blond, and walked at a rapid pace quite different from the usual slow, ponderous gait of males. He soon joined the other blond and they grazed briefly before the blond moved into a draw, followed by the male, where both lay down. After a half-hour rest, the blond led the way as they moved out onto the river bar. These bears were not seen subsequently; perhaps they moved farther up the river bar and onto the slopes and ravines of Divide Mountain. Apparently the second blond was another female. This male concentrated his attention on one of two females, then turned his attention to the second female after consummating his first affair. No overt conflicts were apparent while all three bears were together.

In 1959 I observed a large male, crippled on a front foot, keeping company with two females, one blond and the other dark, with a limp on her hindfoot. The blond female was seen with the male from 20 June to 4 July. On 2 July she was a half-mile from the male and on 4 July, 75 yards away, after which she moved off. The dark female was with the male from 26 June to 10 July. For about a week the male maneuvered with both females. During this period, the females seemed oblivious of one another, the concern of each being the male. It probably was a satisfactory arrangement, for it gave each female some respite from the male's attention. This mating has been described in some detail elsewhere (Murie 1961).

Crippled Male with One Female: The crippled male was not seen during the three summers after 1959 when it mated with two females. However, on 11 June 1963, this dark, crippled male, still limping severely on the left foreleg, was observed following a blond female 3 or 4 miles from the area on Sable Pass where he had rendezvoused with two females in 1959. The pair was moving up the East Fork River bar about a mile above the bridge.

The following day, 12 June, the pair was observed near the East Fork cabin coming down the river close to the east bank, the female in the lead. When the pair came to a stream directly below where we were watching, the female turned and followed the stream eastward.

On 16 June the pair was seen less than a mile up the creek. The male was resting on overflow ice, the female engaged in feeding on roots. He followed a parallel course to where she first fed downstream and then upstream, and lay down on the ice opposite her. A few times he intercepted her, a herding maneuver. They frightened out of the creek bottom a cow moose with a calf but may not have been aware of the presence of these two. Later, the female went up the slope, moved farther east, and returned to the creek. When the male came looking for her, he stood uncertainly a little distance off her trail, uttering some breathy "oofs." He returned to the creek bottom and later the two were together again. In the evening they were in the same area, the female feeding on roots and the male lying on the ice. I had not seen him feed during the day.

On 17 June the pair was seen on the East Fork River bar, and later the bears climbed up among precipitous cliffs, the male resting on a ledge 10 yards above the female. They rested from 6:30 a.m. until 11:00 a.m., at which time the female began to climb, followed by the male. They went over the top of the ridge, dropped down on the far side to the river bar, and returned to the stream where they had been seen the previous day. The male was seen to eat a few bites of green grass. He seemed quite gaunt. The pair was not seen after 17 June (Fig. 20).

Fig. 20. The crippled male patiently following his female mate.

Pair Passes Through Caribou Herd: On 6 July 1948, I discovered a pair of bears asleep at the base of a ridge east of Toklat River. Later, the female fed for a half-hour and then alternately galloped and walked across a flat where a large number of caribou were feeding. The male followed. The caribou moved aside to form a narrow lane for the passage of the bears. When the bears were recrossing the lane, the male mounted the female for 40 minutes. She kept swaying from side to side as though attempting to get free. When they separated, they rested for a half-hour and then continued on their way through the caribou herd, seemingly oblivious to their presence.

Herding the Female: Males were seen frequently behaving as though trying to keep a female mate from traveling by circling in front of her whenever she started to move away. Females seemed to exhibit much perversity and coyness in maneuvering.

On 9 June 1962 at 4 p.m., I discovered a large male with a small female. They were resting 4 or 5 feet apart. After a half-hour, she started across an extensive snowfield. He galloped after her. Reaching bare ground, she alternately fed on berries and new grass and moved away from the male. He herded her, moving in front to head her off, then sitting on his haunches or lying down. Soon she again would begin to move away. He managed to keep her in a small area, so that after an hour she was back where they had been resting when first seen.

At 6 p.m., the female rested and the male sat on his haunches 10 yards in front of her. He kept lifting his muzzle as though catching a scent. For 20 minutes the male sat in front of the female, biding his time, following grizzly ritual. He moved 5 yards to one side and again sat watching her, head held forward. She lay on her stomach, muzzle on ground. At 6:40 p.m., he lay down. At 6:50 p.m., he walked three or four steps toward her. She retreated 50 yards and lay down, and he sat on his haunches. A small, grazing bear appeared 150 yards away; when it saw the two bears it retreated hastily. The female fed again and moved along, and the male continued to head her off. I left them at 8:15 p.m., during this maneuvering.

The following day, when I passed them at 3 a.m., the two bears were in the same area. When I returned at 8:15 a.m., they had moved about 1 mile—the female had made a long run, according to a tourist who had watched them. During the day, the pair behaved as they had on the previous day. On these 2 days I had not seen the male feeding, and the female fed very little on the afternoon of 10 June.

On 11 to 13 June, I did not see the pair but they probably were in the area somewhere. On 14 June they were about 1 mile from where I had seen them 4 days earlier. He was herding her but she stayed about 50 yards away. They both fed on this day. Another large male, a mile away, moved toward them but later angled away and they did not encounter each other.

On 15 June, in the morning, the female followed 50 yards behind the male; they entered a hollow and were not seen during the hour that I waited. At 6:00 p.m., the two bears were feeding 100 yards apart. On 16 June the pair had moved about 1 mile. When discovered, the male was resting on a snowfield and when he started walking westward, she followed him at a distance. Later, I saw him feeding while she rested and rolled on a snowfield. When he started walking toward her, she galloped 50 yards and resumed feeding. On 17 June the bears had moved about a mile, back to their 15 June location. The male was feeding and she was lying on a snowfield 100 yards away. A little later both moved out of my view. On 19 June the two bears were at least 300 yards apart and not in view of each other.

These bears were seen from 9 to 19 June and on the latter date their breeding association appeared to be terminating.

Toklat Mating and Fight: When I arrived at Toklat River on 7 June 1962, I saw a photographer, accompanied by a prospector and his wife, changing film while two male grizzlies were having an altercation about 75 yards or less away. The bears came together on a snowdrift where they raised up on hind legs and the larger bear pushed the other who sprawled backward into the slushy snow, which splattered widely. There was a scuffle and they separated. I did not see any biting. The rush and push of the larger bear overbalanced his opponent. The vanquished bear walked away a few steps and stood, then tentatively began to leave, moving a few steps but lingering for a few minutes. The larger male walked 20 yards or more away, then swung back to the spot of the encounter. The prospector told me that there was much snarling, growling, and foaming at the mouth. The defeated bear moved downriver, below the Toklat River bridge, and disappeared in shrubbery. The prospector said that he saw a pair of bears later, breeding below the bridge, and he assumed that the defeated male was one of the participants.

The victorious male moved out toward two smaller bears that appeared to be females. He came up close to one of them and seemed to nose her, then continued on 200 yards to the other bear and approached to within 3 or 4 yards. After a short pause, he returned to the first female who galloped toward Divide Mountain, the male galloping after her. The female led the way up the west slope of the mountain and then continued southward on a high contour halfway up the slope. The female was usually in the lead but occasionally the male was ahead and at times they traveled parallel, 50 yards or more apart. When the one behind stopped briefly to feed, the other waited or turned back. After moving across the mountain for a mile or more, they descended, fed briefly on the river bar, and soon crossed over the broad bar and fed slowly, moving north. I lost them at the mouth of a small canyon. They had traveled for over an hour and the other female followed the same route, starting out after the pair had left the area. When she came down on the bar she fed for 2 hours, was still feeding when I left, and was alone, about a quarter mile from the pair.

The following day I saw what appeared to be the same pair feeding on roots on the river bar west of Divide Mountain, the two bears about 100 yards apart. When the male moved toward the female, she started galloping, and he galloped after her. After moving about 200 yards, she stopped to feed, and he stopped to feed about 150 yards from her.

A Second Male Takes Over: On 18 June, 1964 about 8 a.m., on the north slope of Cathedral Mountain, a male was discovered breeding with a dark female. After 12 minutes, they separated and both lay down. An hour later he approached within 5 or 6 yards and she moved away. He followed, keeping below her and preventing her from moving down the slope. She lay down, and a few yards below, he did too.

The following morning I saw the male following the female up the slope. When she stopped, he approached and mounted her. In 4 minutes they separated and faced each other. Both lay down. One half-hour later they moved 50 yards and lay down 10 yards apart. Twenty minutes later the female moved 25 yards and sat down on her haunches. The male approached and stood with head against one of her hips. Both lay down. In a half-hour he was following her, and when she stopped they touched noses and sparred briefly. After a few steps and more sparring with heads, he lay down. She sat on her haunches for 18 minutes, with head between her front legs, nose almost touching the ground, as though dejected. She next moved 20 yards and again they put their heads together and gently sparred or fondled. He tried to get behind her and she kept turning so as to face him. In 15 minutes he lay down and she stood with nose to ground for 25 minutes, at times swaying her head from side to side. At 11 a.m., the male approached the female and they nosed each other for 2 minutes. He lay down and she stood with her head down as before for an hour. At noon she moved 20 yards—he followed and lay down 15 yards below her, and she stood again with lowered head for 15 minutes then lay down. Later they fondled briefly, then he lay down, and after standing 10 minutes with lowered head, she also lay down. After almost 3 hours, she sat up on her haunches with lowered head; he put an arm around her, moved off a few steps, returned to nose her head and neck; but she would not let him get behind her. Between 4 p.m., and 9 p.m., this maneuvering continued. They nosed each other five times but she continued to keep him from getting behind her. For periods of 15 or 20 minutes, she would stand with nose almost touching the ground. Neither bear had fed all day. I had never seen a female so steadily approachable—apparently she was at the height of her breeding period.

At 5 a.m., on 20 June the pair was near where I had left them the previous evening. While he rested, she moved one-quarter mile down the slope. When he looked around and found her gone, he nosed about until he found her trail and followed, occasionally breaking into a lope. Below the pair was a blond bear, another female. I had seen her on the slope the day before but not near the pair. She raised her nose, apparently getting the scent of the pair, and started walking up the willow slope toward them. She lay down about 200 yards below the male and the brunette female who were maneuvering on the slope. The three bears rested for most of the morning. At 1 p.m. when the male started to walk toward the blond, the brunette took the opportunity, it seemed, to escape, at least temporarily, for she moved away at a fast walk. The male, discovering her hurrying away, galloped after her. She saw him coming and stopped, and he moved to a position on the slope below her. The male then started watching the blond down the slope, and the brunette again walked rapidly away. He sat on his haunches with head down, as though contemplating. He decided to go to the blond resting below him and as he approached she galloped away. He sniffed thoroughly the bed she had left, then galloped after her and they disappeared from view. Soon they were seen far up the slope, he following 25 yards behind on a steep hillside. The blond stopped on an outcrop; he now hurried down the slope to where the dark female had been and followed her trail at a fast trot or walk until he found her. At 4:15 p.m., the pair became hidden in the willows and later the blond also was hidden. At 10 p.m., the male was seen following the blond. She waited, they touched noses, and he lay down while she sat on her haunches. A half-hour later she was still on her haunches and he resting as before. The behavior of the brunette was different from the previous day's; today she was stand-offish and kept her distance.

At 5 a.m. on 21 June, far up the slope, the male was herding the blond from below. Fresh tracks in snow patches showed that bears had been higher on the mountain during the night. In the course of the morning the male moved from one female to the other, sometimes seeming uncertain which to attend. He was closest to the dark one most of the time, and she was again more tolerant of his attention. However, while the blond was receiving his attention, she took the opportunity to hurry away.

At noon the brunette and male were lying close together, with the blond lying a short distance up the slope from them. Far down the slope, near Igloo Creek, I saw a large, very dark male climbing toward the three resting bears. About that time a heavy rain and mist hid the bears. When it cleared, the big male was where the three bears had been resting, and the three bears were scattered. The lighter male was on an adjoining ridge, the two females higher on the slope, one to the east and the other west of the big male.

Later, the big male began to walk with a ponderous, slow gait toward the brunette, the smaller male disappeared eastward, and the blond female moved west. The brunette went over a ridge and the big male lay down. After resting 1 hour and 45 minutes, he followed and was soon out of sight.

On the following afternoon the big male and the blond were resting 10 yards apart. Soon the brunette appeared among the willows nearby and the big male joined her and mated with her for 25 minutes. She then moved westward, the male following, and the blond female brought up the rear. The three bears disappeared and were not seen together again.

Male with Family: In 1960, the behavior of a mother with two 2-year old cubs suggested that she had mated with a male and was still on intimate terms with him. Apparently, two females had been involved with one male. This relationship will be described in some detail, although later records of similar behavior may change the interpretation that now seems most plausible.

On 30 June 1960, I saw the family for the first time that year, although I had seen them frequently in the same area the year before. Two hours later I saw a tall, rangy male bear in the distance, moving nearer as he fed. When he was 150 yards upwind from the resting female, she raised her head as though getting his scent, but then relaxed. When the male had fed to within 50 yards (about 2 hours after I first saw him), one cub saw him and galloped away, the other cub following. The mother followed the cubs for 100 yards at a gallop and the male galloped after them. She stopped and faced him, muzzles only 2 or 3 feet apart. They moved so that they were standing parallel, shoulder to shoulder, a few feet apart. Then she walked slowly to her cubs 100 yards up the gentle slope. Again, the male chased and again she faced him. In a few moments she moved about 30 yards, her cubs joined her, and all four bears fed. One cub fed within 10 yards of the male, and later the female was as close to him. A little later the mother seemed to panic and ran a short distance then walked into a green swale 200 yards from the male.

Later in the afternoon, the lone male was only about 20 yards from the family. The mother made a threatening charge toward one of the cubs as though to shoo him away, and a few minutes later charged to the male and they sparred, gently it seemed, with jaws wide open. The mother then turned and fed only 5 or 6 yards away, and the male sat on his haunches, as males often do when they are near a female. The cubs had retreated 100 yards when they heard the altercation. Soon all the bears were relaxed, and grazed.

I watched these bears from about 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., when a fog enveloped the area. Twice during the day the cubs were seen nursing. It was obvious from their intimacy and relaxed behavior that the family and the male had been associating for some time.

When I saw the family and male on 1 July, they were from one-half to a mile apart. On 2 July the male was not seen but what appeared to be a blond female fed in the area about a half-mile from the family, and on 3 July only the family was seen. By 4 July the family was a mile or more from the male.

On 5 July the blond female grazed 150 yards from the family. When she started walking toward the family, it moved 50 yards to one side and she continued forward to a distant, favorite green swale, where she fed. The unperturbed behavior of these bears was unusual and indicated a past familiarity. Later in the day the male, who had been feeding a mile away, moved close to the family, which was first startled, then relaxed, and resumed feeding. A few hours later, the three units were spaced about 300 yards apart. I was absent for about 20 minutes and on my return a tourist told me he had seen the male and the blond female "charging each other" with much roaring. These two had moved 200 yards apart, and the family had left.

For the following 3 days the bears were seen but were well-spaced when I saw them. On 9 July the male, moving across the top of Sable Pass, saw the family 200 yards away and galloped toward it. The female stood her ground, but the cubs galloped 200 yards down the slope where they were soon wrestling. The two adults stood about 10 feet apart for about 3 minutes and then the female edged away, joined her cubs, and they walked steadily away another 300 yards. The male began to feed.

At 8 p.m., on 11 July, the male and the blond were feeding about 100 yards apart. The family was resting 300 yards from the blond bear. The brown male fed within 30 yards of the blond bear, started walking toward her, then charged a short distance. The blond stopped feeding and stood for 5 minutes, while the brown male remained in a hollow a few yards away. Later, the bears sparred with open jaws, a foot or two apart. They then relaxed and fed 10 or 15 yards apart for 10 minutes, facing away from each other, seemingly unwatchful and indifferent. They faced each other again 3 or 4 yards apart, then again fed. This was odd behavior for which I cannot account unless the male also had been mated with this blond bear.

On 12 July the family and the brown male fed about 100 yards apart. The cubs played roughly later in the day and galloped a quarter-mile from the mother. She and the brown male both started walking toward the cubs. The female, upon seeing the male advancing, veered toward him and then he walked toward her. When they were 15 yards apart, they both stopped. Then I heard the female utter a prolonged, roaring growl, and soon she moved toward her cubs. The male resumed feeding in a casual manner. The following day, the 13th, the brown male was still near the same place, as he was on the 15th and the 21st. The family was not seen again until 11 August, when it was in the process of breaking up.

It appears that the brown male had mated with two females and that I had observed the waning of the breeding period. If this were so, then a female with 2-year-old cubs had bred while still on good terms with her offspring. Whatever the relationship, this was one of the few times I observed such behavior between a male and a female with cubs.

Summary: A general pattern in the behavior of breeding pairs emerges. Females tend to pay scant attention to males when they encounter them early in the breeding season. Males, on the other hand, are intent on maintaining their association with a female, although the presence of a second female sometimes complicates their actions. At times, a male actively herds a female in an attempt to prevent her from escaping his attentions. Eventually, a female becomes more tolerant of the male. This increased responsiveness seems necessary for breeding to occur and perhaps is related to the onset of sexual receptivity during estrus. The female's initial aloofness may function to retain her availability to other, perhaps more fit males that might encounter her and displace the initial suitor.


Observations made over a period of years in McKinley National Park have added considerable new information concerning the nursing habits of grizzlies. Of special interest was the discovery that yearling cubs are nursed routinely and to the same extent as spring cubs. Even more surprising was that 2-year-old cubs also nursed routinely, at least during the spring and early summer.

The time of weaning varies with different families. I have seen a 2-year-old cub nursing in late July, and it would not surprise me if some cubs, especially in one-cub families, were still nursing in September. One wonders why the period of nursing is so prolonged, for even the spring cubs feed extensively during the summer on all the foods enjoyed by bears.

To what extent the information gathered at McKinley National Park is typical of grizzlies in other regions and other environments is not known because very little has been published concerning this phase of grizzly habits. Pearson (in Herrero 1972:81) reported that in Yukon Territory weaning does not take place until cubs are 2-1/2 years old, and the Craigheads' data from Yellowstone Park suggest that weaning occurs at 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 years of age with equal frequency (Herrero 1972:81). On Kodiak Island, cubs usually are weaned as yearlings, but at least some mothers continue to nurse 2-year-old cubs (Herrero 1972:81).

Nursing Posture

The mother bear is equipped with three pairs of teats: two pairs pectorally on the chest, and one pair inguinally between the hind legs. Cubs nurse at both pectoral and inguinal teats, but pectoral nursing predominates. Cubs, especially single ones, frequently switch their attention from one side to the other several times during a nursing, and shift from pectoral to inguinal locations. The usual pattern I observed was pectoral nursing initially, followed by a short period of inguinal nursing near the end of the session. When the mother decides to favor the cubs with a nursing, she generally sits down on her haunches and rolls over on her back. While the cubs nurse fore and aft, she bows her neck so that it is raised off the ground and held with muzzle pointed toward the cubs as though to supervise or admire her growing offspring. For humans, the bowed neck would be a strain, but apparently mother bears do not mind for the position is sometimes maintained after the cubs have finished. Occasionally, a mother may relax toward the end of a session and rest her head on the tundra. One mother seemed weary from the start and lay relaxed during an entire nursing. While lying on her back, the mother's legs may be in various positions. The hind legs may be extended somewhat or bent so that knees are raised on either side of a cub nursing inguinally. The arms usually are relaxed along the sides of her body, but occasionally an arm extends over a nursing cub. One female I observed nursing a yearling formed a basket by grasping hind legs with paws (Fig. 21).

Fig. 21. A mother nursing her spring cub, in the typical nursing posture for grizzlies.

A cub may begin to nurse while the mother is in a sitting position but usually she will roll over immediately onto her back. Only a few times have I seen a mother remain sitting on her haunches during an entire nursing period. Occasionally, a mother was observed sitting on her haunches while her yearling nursed a minute or so, and then tip back into the usual posture. Nursing inguinally would seem to be more convenient for the cub when the mother is on her back. On a few occasions a mother nursed the cubs while lying on her side, and sometimes, after she had rolled over on her side from the back position to terminate a session, a cub might continue trying to nurse.

One mother was just too sleepy to stay awake during a nursing. On 4 August 1961 this mother returned to an old caribou carcass of which little remained except bones. She managed to extract some long, tough pieces of sinew from the leg bones. Her two spring cubs chewed at the bones for a time, but soon wearied and waited for the mother to complete her salvage operations. When, at long last, she turned away from the bones, the cubs set up a loud squalling—they had been patient long enough. After walking three or four steps, the mother rolled over onto her back into the usual posture with head raised and muzzle pointed toward her breast. After a minute, I noticed her head falling slowly to one side, lower and lower. Obviously, she had fallen asleep. Then with a jerk she awoke and raised her head, but immediately fell asleep again. I once saw a mother Rock Ptarmigan falling asleep in this manner while standing in the noonday sun, her chicks squatting nearby in the shallow shade of a miniature bank, her head falling to one side or backward as she slept, and waking with a jerk of her head, only to fall asleep again at once. This napping continued for several minutes just as it did with the sleepy bear. The bear continued to nap to the end of the nursing, which lasted 7 minutes, one of the longer nursings I recorded. The mother terminated the nursing by rolling over on her side. For 15 minutes she slept without a stir, then raised her head for a second and lay back at once for more sleep. The two cubs also slept. It was a warm sleepy day.

Start of Nursing Session

The initiative for a nursing session may be taken by the cubs or the mother but, of course, the mother has the final word. If the mother's physiology suggests nursing, she may inadvertently communicate her readiness to the cubs. For instance, if she stops feeding and stands inert, or starts walking, or sits, or lies down, the cubs may interpret her behavior as an invitation to nurse and come hurrying. These cues are of such a general nature that they sometimes may be misleading. I expect that occasionally even when the mother has not planned on a nursing, the impatient cubs may provide the stimulus for one.

If the mother is standing still, the cubs may wait expectantly beside or in front of her. A cub may poke his nose against her chest whether she is standing, sitting, or lying on her stomach. If the response is slow, cubs of any age may cry and bawl. If the mother is walking, they sometimes keep up a complaining cry as they follow. If the mother is ready to nurse, she may roll over onto her back where she is, or, more likely, walk a short distance first, as though choosing a comfortable patch of tundra for a bed.

Sometimes the mother is quite positive in suggesting a nursing. Once a mother walked to her two resting yearlings, touched noses with each one, walked a few steps, the cubs following, and lay down in a nursing position. This is rare; a mother seldom has time to assume a nursing position before the cubs arrive.

On one occasion play intervened and prevented the cubs from responding to an obvious nursing invitation. When a mother and her two yearlings walked out on a snowbank, the cubs started wrestling and sliding immediately. Over to one side, the mother rolled into a nursing position, head held up as though posing for a picture, but the cubs were having such a good time they failed to notice the invitation. In a minute or two the mother stood up, moved off the snow, and started grazing. The cubs did not know what they had missed.

Some mothers appear to seek vantage points for nursing. In June 1967 I watched a female with two 2-year-olds for several days on the lower slopes of Divide Mountain. At each of the five nursing sessions I saw, the mother climbed to a knobby outcrop before allowing the cubs to nurse.

There are endless little variations in the behavior of the family. On 30 May 1964 I spent the morning on the lower slopes of Cathedral Mountain observing a cow moose chasing away her yearling whose place in her affections had been taken by a newborn calf. While the moose were quiescent, I watched and photographed a pair of Willow Ptarmigan feeding and courting in the tundra. A little after 11 o'clock I discovered a blond mother bear with her two blondish 2-year-olds. They had wandered onto a nearby slope and were occupied with root digging. In half an hour the mother lay down on her stomach between the two cubs that were feeding about a dozen yards from her. The larger cub, always the hungrier in this family, came and poked his nose under her chest. There was no delay, the mother stood up and rolled over on her back and the cub lay between her hind legs concentrating on inguinal teats. The smaller cub, who oddly never seemed very anxious to nurse, continued to feed on roots and delayed for 2 minutes before joining and attacking the breasts from one side. After obliging for 5 minutes, the mother rolled over and stood up. The small cub returned to his digging which he had abandoned so reluctantly for the nursing; the other cub and the mother, after standing for a couple of minutes, lay down. In 10 minutes the mother resumed her rooting but the large cub remained resting. About 3-1/2 hours later, the mother walked to a snowfield, ate some snow, and lay down a short distance from the snowfield. In a few minutes the larger cub walked to the mother and she stood up and resumed rooting. Twenty minutes later, she again lay down and when the big cub approached, she rose and resumed feeding. She apparently fed in order not to be bothered. Ten minutes later she and the big cub were resting 50 yards apart. After another 10 minutes, the mother stood up, walked to the resting cub (the smaller one was still rooting steadily) touched noses with him, ate a little snow, and started climbing the slope. The large cub followed closely for a short distance then stopped and watched her move 100 yards up the slope and lie on a ledge. The big cub then followed and when he reached the ledge, the mother rolled over and the cub nursed for 5-1/2 minutes. The small cub missed the nursing and was still digging by himself 150 yards down the slope when I left the scene 10 minutes later.

The family spent the night on the outcrop. They were still there the following day at 4:30 a.m. A little later, they left the outcrop and started digging roots down the slope. Three hours later, the large cub walked to the mother, she moved away, and the cub walked beside her trying to promote a nursing. The small cub also started following and after they walked 75 yards, they all resumed digging roots. The expectations of the cubs did not materialize. Fifteen minutes later, the mother lay down but walked away when the large cub approached. She lay down again, and the large cub joined her pushing his muzzle under her side and chest. When there was no response, he stood there bawling. Ten minutes later the smaller cub also approached the mother. It seemed that because she was bothered, she started digging roots and a little later walked away. The small cub wasted no more time waiting for a nursing and turned to feeding on roots. The large cub sat glumly on his haunches eyeing his mother. She soon walked steadily across the slope on a contour. Both cubs followed. She stopped two or three times as though searching for a comfortable spot for a nursing and finally rolled over on her back and 5-minute nursing took place. This was more than 4 hours after their departure from their night beds. The cubs had wanted to nurse long before the mother obliged. This mother gave the cubs several false cues and seemed strong willed, resisting being forced into a nursing.

But when cubs take the initiative they sometimes succeed in promoting a nursing. One day in late May a mother and her two yearlings were feeding on roots. After a time, I saw one cub quit digging, walk to the mother, and stand close to her side while she continued digging. It was obvious to me what the cub had in mind and it no doubt also was clear to the mother. After 5 minutes, she stopped feeding and stood immobile. The second cub, perceiving progress, stopped his digging and also approached the mother. A few moments after his arrival she rolled over on her back, and a 4-minute nursing took place.

Displacement Nursing Activity

Occasionally, a mother will nurse her cubs during a period of nervous tension caused by the proximity of another bear.

On 25 June 1962 a mother and two yearlings were feeding on a gentle slope on Sable Pass. A hundred yards below them was a young bear, and 200 yards to one side was another, both bears in plain sight. A third young bear was out of sight in the hummocks 300 yards above the family. After a time, the young bear below the family started walking toward the other lone bear. The mother, seeing the bear moving below her seemed to take fright, for she started walking away rapidly. But after traveling 75 yards, she stopped, nursed her yearlings, seemed to regain her composure, and resumed feeding.

On 13 September 1964 a mother and her yearling were feeding on berries. A lone bear, which I judged to be about the size of the mother or slightly larger, came into view about 150 yards up the slope. He was moving along a contour at a steady walk. After a time, the mother either saw him or caught his scent for she suddenly stopped feeding and galloped into a ravine and to the top of the other side. From her new position she could see the lone bear. She watched a minute or two then rolled over on her side and the cub nursed. After 2 minutes of nursing, the female sat up to watch the bear, who by then had seen the family and was hurrying away, sometimes breaking into a lope. Here again the nursing had taken place amid some excitement.

On 2 June 1965 I saw a mother with her 2-year-old cub come over a rise about 100 yards from a young bear, perhaps a 4-year-old. The bears discovered each other about the same time and stood watching. In a minute or so the lone bear came forward 15 yards and stood up on hind legs for a better view as the family walked a few yards to the top of a knoll, where the mother nursed the cub. The lone bear moved 50 yards away and stood watching for 10 minutes then loped away, later settling to a steady walk. No strong reactions were evident on either side. Neither presented a threat to the other, but the nursing at this time of somewhat heightened tension suggested it was a displacement activity.

Female Hurt During Nursing

On a few occasions a female behaved as though she had been hurt by a nursing cub. The reaction usually was a quick movement and sometimes a growl. One mother just starting to nurse in a sitting position made a quick grab at a yearling's head as though she had felt a sudden pain. Another mother nursing yearlings uttered a sharp growl suggesting she had been ruffled by a cub nursing too vigorously. A mother nursing two yearlings stood up and growled her resentment. A mother nursing a 2-year-old cub held arms outstretched tensely as though hurt, rolled over, and terminated the nursing soon after it had begun. Once, when the mother of two yearlings sat down on her haunches, one of the yearlings pushed his muzzle between her forelegs apparently hurting her for she pushed the cub aside with her paw. The cub stood bawling loudly, not, I expect, so much because of the pain, but because of frustration. In a few minutes the mother walked a dozen steps, an impatient cub on each side, and rolled back into a nursing position. It may be significant and is logical that cubs that hurt their mother were all yearlings or 2-year-olds rather than spring cubs. But any noticeable hurt is rare in any nursing.

Cubs Failing to Attend Nursing

Although cubs are always ready to nurse, there were occasions when one cub in a family of two or three failed to attend a nursing. Two such instances were noted earlier in this section. A nursing usually is enjoyed by the cubs too much for them to miss one without good reason.

In early June one of two 2-year-old cubs followed the mother closely until she rolled over on her back for a nursing. The other cub, who apparently had his jaws stuck together with porcupine quills, was a short distance away chomping in distress and trying to feed on crowberries. He was too bothered by the quills to pay attention to anything else, although later in the day he did take part in a nursing.

I have described elsewhere an incident in which a mother nursed a 2-year-old cub after she and the cub had finished their portions of a caribou calf. The second cub, 20 yards to one side, did not come to the nursing but continued feeding on his piece of the carcass. He may have been too intent on his feeding to note the nursing in progress, or perhaps the taste of meat was a greater attraction.

One year, at the beginning of the berry season, a mother and two yearlings were foraging for berries, each moving about on its own looking for choice bushes. After a time, one of the cubs followed the mother closely and succeeded in promoting a nursing. The other cub, 100 yards away, was so intent on his foraging that he failed to note the event.

Termination of Nursing Session

A nursing usually is terminated by the mother when she rolls over on her stomach. A cub may persist in nursing if the mother rolls over on her side and then she must roll the rest of the way to dislodge him fully. One of three spring cubs once continued nursing after the mother had rolled over on her side and was still nursing when she stood up. The mother then swung her head between her forelegs to dislodge the nursing cub. On another occasion, when a yearling objected to a termination, he grabbed the skin on the side of his mother's head with his jaws and shook it vigorously. One mother while nursing a spring cub jerked as though hurt slightly, immediately grasped the cub by the nape of the neck in her jaws, and lifted him off to the side.

Several times cubs were observed to discontinue nursing before the mother turned onto her side. After three spring cubs had nursed for 4 minutes, one cub returned to a spot 40 yards away where he had been digging roots before the dinner bell rang. The other two cubs nursed an additional minute before the mother turned over. On another occasion one of two spring cubs stopped nursing before the mother called a halt. Yearlings and 2-year-olds also stopped nursing occasionally before the mother rolled over on her stomach. Apparently, they had nursed the mother dry.

Several times the mother retained her nursing posture after the cubs quit nursing. One mother, after her lone yearling had nursed 4-1/2 minutes and departed, held her rigid nursing position 3 minutes more before rolling over on her side. On 10 June 1959 two large 2-year-old cubs nursed 4 minutes and stopped, and the mother continued in nursing position for 2 minutes more. On 30 June 1960 a 2-year-old cub after nursing 3-1/2 minutes, moved off to feed on green vegetation. The other cub stopped one-half minute later. The mother remained in stiff nursing pose for 6 minutes longer as though in a trance, then lay relaxed on her back, with head fallen back on the ground, for 10 minutes. On 4 July this same family was observed again. One cub left after 3 minutes of nursing and the other after 4 minutes. The mother held her nursing position for 2 minutes and then let her head fall and continued resting on her back. Other similar nursings were noted in which the cubs, after apparently taking all available milk, stopped and left the mother holding her nursing position. But usually the mother terminated the nursings by rolling over on her stomach. It appears that 2-year-old cubs are more likely than younger cubs to stop a nursing session of their own accord.

Length of Nursing Session

Spring Cubs: I made nursing observations on 15 females who were followed by spring cubs. A total of 51 nursings were observed, of which 34 were timed. These nursing sessions among spring cubs lasted from 2 to 7 minutes, an average of 4 minutes and 15 seconds.

Yearling Cubs: After noting a yearling nursing in 1953, I spent considerable time determining to what extent yearlings nursed. When it became obvious that all yearlings nursed. I devoted less time to observing yearlings, but data accumulated incidentally. Twenty-five yearling families were observed nursing and 65 nursing sessions were seen. I timed 37 of these which ranged from 3 to 6-1/2 minutes, averaging 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

Two-year-old Cubs: When I learned that 2-year-old cubs nursed, a special effort was made to make nursing observations of these older bears. I was able to check on 32 families in which the cubs were 2 years old. In each case the cubs were seen nursing. The latest date noted for the nursing of 2-year-olds was 26 July but families seen after this date might have been nursing. When the break from the family occurs early in the season due to breeding, nursing probably continues as long as the cubs are with the mother. In one family four nursings were noted on 18 May, and 2 days later the mother and her two 2-year-old cubs had separated.

Eighty-six nursings by 2-year-olds were observed and 57 among 25 families were timed. The shortest nursing session was 2 minutes; the longest, a very unusual one, was 12 minutes; the average was 4 minutes and 40 seconds. The short 2-minute session was terminated by the mother because of the roughness of the cub. As in the other age groups, the length of most nursings was near the average. Forty-four of the 57 nursings ranged between 4 and 5 minutes. Sixteen of the families that were timed had two cubs and nine had one cub. There was no significant difference in nursing duration between one-cub and two-cub families except for one one-cub family whose nursings were especially prolonged in a few instances. I shall describe these for their general interest.

On 22 June 1965 a family broke all records for prolonged nursing. The single cub and mother had been feeding during the day on the remains of an old ram in a short draw near the Toklat River. The carcass had been covered with sod and debris and was partially uncovered when the bears fed. At one point the mother stopped feeding and flopped down on her stomach on the mound. Soon, the cub also stopped feeding on the carcass and pushed his muzzle against the mother's chest. She stood up, walked three or four steps, and lay on her back against a bank at a 45-degree angle. The cub nursed for 12 minutes, shifting a dozen times from one side to the other; nursing was pectoral. The cub, after a brief pause, tried nursing at short intervals for the next 2 minutes. All this time the mother lay relaxed, much of the time with her head resting on the ground rather than raised in the usual position. After lying thus for 22 minutes, she rolled over lazily onto her side.

On 19 June this family had walked a quarter-mile from a carcass and at 7 p.m. the cub nursed for 9 minutes 15 seconds. The cub nursed only pectorally and shifted its operation many times from one side to the other. On another occasion (8 July) this cub nursed 7 minutes 5 seconds. I saw this cub nurse 16 times. The three prolonged nursings made the average period for each nursing 5 minutes and 40 seconds, about a minute longer than the average period for all 2-year-olds.

Nursing Interval

The interval between the beginnings of two or more consecutive nursings varies considerably in all age groups. The average length of interval is shortest in the spring cubs, longest in the 2-year-olds. On the other hand, the length of the nursing session is shortest in spring cubs and longest in 2-year-olds. There appears to be a correlation between length of interval and length of nursing session, that is, the longer the interval, the longer the nursing session.

Spring Cubs: On 23 June 1950 I arrived at Sable Pass at 7:30 a.m., and until late in the afternoon watched a family consisting of a mother and three spring cubs. Five consecutive nursings were observed. The first nursing took place at 8:23 a.m., the mother taking the usual posture. After the cubs had nursed for 3 minutes, the mother rolled over on one side. One cub persisted in his nursing and had to be dislodged after the mother stood up. The other two cubs scuffled, and when one cried as though hurt, the mother made a sudden turn toward them, as though ready to protect them. At 10:05 a.m., the cubs moved close to the mother as though expecting to nurse, but she continued to graze. At 10:50 a.m., the mother lay on her stomach, then rolled over on her back. The cubs nursed for 4 minutes after which she rolled over on her stomach, the cubs resting beside her. In 36 minutes the mother resumed grazing, but the cubs rested for another 20 minutes before they started grazing.

Shortly before 1:36 p.m., the cubs again walked expectantly toward their grazing mother. She walked 10 yards, sat down, and rolled over backward. After the cubs had nursed for 3-1/2 minutes, she rolled over on her stomach. Five minutes later she walked a few steps and nursed the cubs for another 4 minutes. In a minute or two she sat up and started grazing. At 2:05 p.m., the family lay down and rested for 50 minutes. The mother then resumed grazing and the cubs picked a little at the vegetation.

Shortly before 4:20 p.m., the mother walked about 200 yards and the cubs chased after her, expecting a nursing. When she stopped, they crowded in close. She sat down, rolled over, and after a 3-minute nursing she stood up and grazed.

The spring cubs had fed five times at intervals of 2 hours 27 minutes, 2 hours 46 minutes, 9 minutes, and 2 hours 35 minutes. The duration of each of the five nursings was roughly 4 minutes, 4 minutes, 3-1/2 minutes, 4 minutes, and 3 minutes.

The interval between nursings in spring cubs varied from 9 minutes to 3 hours and 34 minutes. Omitting the unusually short interval of 9 minutes, the average length of the 18 intervals recorded for spring cubs was 2 hours and 30 seconds.

Yearlings: The interval between nursings of yearlings was timed 14 times. The shortest interval was 1 hour and 10 minutes, the longest 5 hours, an unusually long interval for yearlings. The average interval was 2 hours and 37 minutes.

On 19 June 1959 I spent several hours watching a mother and her two yearlings, and noted five consecutive nursings. The first took place at 9:15 a.m. The intervals between the five nursings were as follows: 1 hour 15 minutes, 3 hours 5 minutes, 1 hour 10 minutes, 2 hours 34 minutes. The first three nursings were terminated by the cubs, and the mother remained in nursing position for 2 or 3 minutes after they stopped. Twice, a cub started the nursing while the mother sat on her haunches but both times she rolled over on her back. From the time of the first nursing at 9:15 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., the mother and cubs rested. This long rest period during the day was unusual and may have been due to the relatively warm weather, one of the warmest days of the summer. The warm weather also may have caused the mother to be lackadaisical about terminating the nursings for, as noted, she remained in a nursing position after three of the nursings had been terminated by the cubs, an unusual procedure for other mothers.

Two-year-old Cubs: For 2-year-old cubs, 24 intervals between two consecutive nursings were recorded. The longest interval between nursings was 9 hours and 20 minutes, the shortest, 40 minutes. The average of the 24 timed intervals was 3 hours and 33 minutes. The average was raised by two especially long intervals, one of 9 hours and another of over 7 hours.

On 23 June 1965 I observed a mother nurse her 2-year-old cub four times. The first nursing took place about 9:30 a.m. I did not see the start but timed the last 3 minutes. The cub stopped of its own accord and the mother rolled over, walked a few steps, and lay on her back. In 5 minutes the cub approached and nursed for 2 minutes before the mother rolled over on her side to terminate it. This was not a regular nursing. It seemed that the cub had taken advantage of the mother's resting position and she was too indifferent to roll away at once. Not including this nursing, the intervals between the four nursings were: 3 hours 23 minutes; 3 hours 59 minutes; and 40 minutes. The 40-minute interval was much shorter than usual, and the nursing may have been due to a displacement activity. The family had left a ram carcass of which little remained worth salvaging and had fed on vegetation in the willow brush. Later, in climbing a slope 100 yards from the carcass, the mother stopped to watch another mother with a yearling that had moved to the carcass. She lay down on her stomach to watch, whereupon the cub nuzzled at the mother's chest region and she rolled over and a 4-minute nursing ensued. This appeared to be some sort of displacement activity, taking place when the mother was under nervous tension due to the proximity of the other family. Being occupied with the other family, she responded automatically to the cub's suggestion. This female had a generous supply of milk; the previous day the cub had nursed for 12 minutes in one session.

Summary of Nursing Sessions and Intervals

The average lengths of nursing sessions and intervals for the three age groups are shown in Table 6. According to the figures, the average nursing interval is shortest in spring cubs and longest for 2-year-olds. The length of nursing sessions is similar in the three age groups, but somewhat less in spring cubs.

Table 6. Average length of nursing and nursing interval for families with cubs of different ages.

AgeNo. of
No. of
Mean length
of nursing
No. of
Mean time
between nursings

Spring cubs15344 min 15 sec182 hr 30 sec
Yearlings25374 min 20 sec142 hr 37 min
Two-year-olds25574 min 40 sec243 hr 33 min

Aspects of Family Life


Cubs, before and after leaving their mother, spend much time in play. When there is more than one cub in a family much of their play is wrestling and chasing each other. A mother will spend considerable time playing with a lone cub, especially a spring cub. But twins and triplets are so independent and self-sufficient in their play that the mother is seldom called upon to participate. A lone cub will seek its mother for prolonged sessions of play which consist chiefly of tugging and grasping at the mother's head and neck while she paws gently at the cub.

Young bears cannot resist playing when they come to a late spring or summer snowfield. Even a mother may become frolicsome in such circumstances. (A snowfield affects the lambs of Dall sheep and the caribou calves similarly, and I have seen older animals buck and jump when they came to a snow patch.) I saw one 3- or 4-year-old lone cub run to the edge of a steep snow slope and turn a somersault sliding down the almost perpendicular slope. Another lone, young bear gave a vigorous exhibit of jumping and rolling, and, holding his paws straight out ahead of him, pushed himself down the slope with hind legs. At the edge of the snow he encountered a Willow Ptarmigan which immediately put on a wounded act, fluttering and flying ahead of the loping bear just far enough to keep out of his reach. Isabelle Woolcock watched cubs pushing snow to form balls with which they played, pushing the snowball down the slope of the snowfield and pouncing on it. I have seen similar play and also have seen bears break off pieces of icy snow on the lower edge of an old drift and use them for play, pouncing on and mauling them. Once, two cubs were too engrossed in this kind of play to notice a mother's invitation to nurse. Several times I have seen lone bears roll and slide on steep snowslides, and in the spring one often sees trails on steep slopes where the bears have made long slides, no doubt enjoying the sport.

One year in early summer (June 1963), a mother and 2-year-old cub moved out on a snowfield. They broke into a short gallop, then wrestled and played and rolled, sometimes the female and sometimes the big cub on top. They continued playing after leaving the snow patch, both standing erect on hind legs. Twice the mother made short gallops and then faced the cub for more wrestling. Finally, the cub ran ahead 100 yards, then returned to the female who was feeding, and both fed. This mother had been unusually playful, a mood apparently induced by the snowfield.

Another female and 2-year-old cub indulged in play frequently. One day in June they encountered a snowfield on their wanderings. The cub faced the female as she plowed through the snow pushing him aside. Each time the cub was displaced, he recovered and again faced his mother. This continued until the 40 or 50 yards of snow were traversed. Apparently, the female was not moved to play by either the snow or her cub, but later, after a nursing session, she chased and wrestled with the cub in heavy rain for about 10 minutes; a lone caribou was an interested bystander.

After separating permanently from the mother, twins may devote much time to play. I have the impression that some bears play more than others. Two 2-year-olds that I saw several times during one summer seemed to be in a prolonged wrestling match each time. One day a big bear loomed up on the skyline as they were in one of their bouts. They hurried away, galloping in a large semicircle a mile or more in extent until they gained a prominence far above the big bear. Here they lay watching the bear below them. After an hour, they started traveling and feeding, intermixed with frequent wrestling play.

In families in which one cub is considerably larger than the other, the persistence and roughness of the larger cub may become irksome to the smaller one who has to keep breaking away and running to escape. Sometimes when one of a set of twins or triplets is more pugnacious, the mother will intercede and break up fights between cubs.

On 26 June 1956 I spent some time watching a mother and her large 2-year-old as they fed on Sable Pass. The cub, lagging behind the mother, started a prolonged activity which suggested that he was excessively energetic. He began his exuberant play by moving off 100 yards and rolling over on his back, waving and kicking all four black paws in the air. Because the legs are heavy and the hair long, the feet seemed small, too neat and tiny for the bulk they supported. A willow was uprooted, and as he lay on his back, he juggled it in every conceivable way, holding it with various foot combinations, with front paws, with hindfeet, or with a front- and hindfoot. Using both teeth and claws, he removed some of the bark. Sometimes the branch was held with front paws high above his head as though contemplating it. There seemed to be a search for variety as he played with the willow for about 15 minutes. After this prolonged playing, he grasped the willow in his mouth, shook it vigorously and, still grasping it, pushed his head hard against hummocks, apparently to create some antagonistic resistance to his action. His head was jerked against the ground and he jumped in circles and struck the ground fiercely with both forepaws. As he galloped forward to overtake his mother he pounced in a puddle of water with a splash. He jumped into two more puddles sometimes wriggling and jerking his head. When the mother was overtaken, he grasped her hindquarters. As she rolled over to play, he grasped her by the throat and tried to shake her. Later, the mother grasped the skin around the cub's ears and held the cub as though trying to restrain him. Then they sparred briefly as both stood on hind legs. The mother wearied and started walking. When the cub tried to spar, he was pushed aside with a paw. A second time she pushed him away, and then a third time more roughly, causing the cub to stand disconsolately. The last spank he apparently understood and followed the mother with sober step into a swale where both fed.

One can often see cubs in prolonged wrestling, but I have not seen a cub behave so vigorously, so long by himself as this one. A lone cub, especially a spring cub, does not get enough play from his mother, so he dashes about and jumps in the air with a wriggle, starving for a satisfactory outlet. When tall willow brush is encountered, the cubs often climb among the limbs or lie down and spar with the overhanging branches.


Cubs often imitate their mothers even though they may not be learning anything they would not eventually learn on their own. Once I watched a mother run into a clump of willows and roll over on her back in the middle of the clump. When she moved on and the spring cub arrived at the clump, he also rolled into the willows and lay on his back, with feet pawing the air. When the mother dug herself a level bed on a gravel slope, the cub dug himself a bed at the same spot. I have frequently watched a cub rub its back on a pole after the mother had finished rubbing, or dig around in the dirt while the mother was digging for roots or a ground squirrel (Figs. 22, 23).

Figs. 22,23. This female used a telephone pole for backscratching. Minutes later, when the female had finished rubbing, her tiny spring cub awkwardly stood and rubbed its back on the pole.

In 1969 I watched a female encounter a fallen telephone pole. She looked back at her spring cub, then lay down and rubbed her back, head, and neck on the pole. Her cub approached, watched, and began to rub; he seemed to have no special itches but went through the same motions as the mother, continuing even after the female had stopped and walked a few yards away. A few days later I saw two spring cubs watch their mother rub her back on some hummocks. As soon as she stopped, both cubs went to the hummock and began rubbing in the same fashion.

Family Travel

Usually, the mother dictates the direction and speed of travel of a grizzly family. Sometimes, however, the cubs play a role. A female and three yearlings were seen at Thorofare River on 31 May 1959. The three cubs frolicked and galloped 300 or 400 yards ahead of the mother.

On 30 August a female with three yearlings was seen at the base of Mount Eielson about 2 miles from where this female and three yearlings were seen in May. These cubs were as dark as those in May had been. Three or 4 inches of snow lay on the ground. The mother was digging ground squirrels as the cubs huddled about 100 yards from her, hidden by a growth of willows. She stopped digging, looked around, and dashed toward her cubs. She sniffed them and returned to her digging. The cubs then galloped westward across the high bench. When the cubs were a quarter mile from the female, she saw them and galloped for almost a mile in pursuit. She caught up at a prospector's cabin where the two leading cubs had stopped to investigate. Again the cubs galloped forward, leaving the mother far behind, digging. She again galloped after them until I lost sight of them all in the rough country. The cubs thus influenced the course of travel.

Mother Concern for Her Cubs

Many females with cubs evidence a motherly concern for their offspring. When a mother moves out of sight of her cubs in the course of her feeding activities, she usually returns to make sure that the cubs do not lose contact with her. Sometimes, a mother will cuff a repeatedly laggard cub as though punishing it. When cubs move out of sight of their mothers in the course of their play or feeding, she soon maneuvers to keep them in sight, even moving from one napping spot to another from which the cubs are visible. Cubs that are left behind temporarily or lost, especially spring cubs, may emit a hoarse crying or bawling sound which seems to alert the mother to their plight if she is within earshot.

An incident I observed on 7 September 1964 is an example of a grizzly mother's concern for her cub. A mother and her yearling had crossed the Toklat River bar and climbed a long green slope to the edge of a precipitous rocky dropoff above the road. When I saw the mother again, she was picking her way down among the cliffs. By the time she reached the road, the cub had stopped at a perpendicular dropoff which the mother had managed to negotiate. He maneuvered about for a few minutes, afraid to proceed, then climbed upward, soon disappearing. The mother obviously was agitated. My car blocked her progress in one direction, but after some turning about and uncertainty she jumped to the river bar from a 7-foot steel dike. She was uttering deep, throaty growls as she crossed the river and then the road 150 yards to the other side of me and climbed out of view to find her cub. By the time she had reached the top of the ridge, the yearling had managed to reach the road by another route. He hesitated, jumped off the dike, followed the mother's trail across the river channels, and climbed the cliffs, following her trail. When the mother descended the cliffs a second time and found no cub, she was much concerned. She climbed almost to the cliff where the cub had stopped, returned to the road, and seemed ready to do battle with anyone. She finally dropped down to the river bar, and about that time the cub arrived on the road for the second time. He was afraid to jump off the dike again, so moved down the road and reached the bar below the bridge where the mother joined him. She led the way a half mile toward Divide Mountain before they started feeding on roots.

A few mothers showed rare lack of concern for cubs. One female with two spring cubs was seen several times at Stony Creek in 1969. She spent much of her time grazing and chasing ground squirrels out of sight of her two cubs, and neither she nor the cubs ever seemed anxious over even prolonged separations.

Despite a general concern for their cubs, females capturing ground squirrels or discovering some tasty carrion seem more eager to satisfy their own appetite than their cubs'. But occasionally a mother does extend her concern for cubs to sharing meat with them.

On 29 May 1965, on the south slope of Sable Mountain, I discovered a dark mother with two yearlings. The companionable cubs lagged far behind the mother, at times 200 yards or more, without attempting to keep in contact with her. They fed on the crowberries that remained on the tiny twigs through the winter. The mother disappeared behind a rise, and the cubs, grazing along on the snow-free patches, angled downward. Soon I saw some caribou appear on a high slope a little beyond where the mother bear had disappeared; it was apparent that the caribou were moving away from her. In a few minutes she also appeared, galloping down the slope carrying part of a caribou calf. At first, I wondered how she happened to come directly toward the cubs, who had moved forward and disappeared half mile away from where she last saw them. But on noting the wind direction, it seemed certain that she was following their scent that was being carried up the slope. When in sight of the cubs, she dropped her load and continued forward 150 yards or more. Then, followed closely by them, she returned to the food item she had dropped. The cubs tugged at the calf remains while she rested a few steps away. She must have been surfeited, otherwise she would have been active in getting her share. When she left the cubs, she probably went up the slope to retrieve remains of a calf killed earlier, one on which they probably all had fed previously.

The family was not seen the following day but was discovered at 7 a.m. on 31 May slightly west of where they had been seen on the 29th. The mother was moving forward again far ahead of the two cubs who had stopped to dig roots. The mother, walking rapidly and purposefully, climbed a side ridge and disappeared behind a cone on the lower slopes of Sable Mountain. Soon after she reappeared from behind the cone, she started loping toward 14 caribou cows that were hurrying away in the distance. Soon the bear was galloping quite fast, a sign that she was trying her best to close in on whatever she was chasing. She stopped suddenly about one-third mile from her cubs and fed on a calf carcass for almost 10 minutes. Then she started galloping back toward her cubs dragging the carcass, the legs and head dangling and getting in the way of her legs as she galloped, making several stops necessary to get a new hold. When the cubs saw her appear on top of the ridge, they galloped away far up a long snow slope. The cubs obviously did not recognize their mother. Down near the spot where the cubs had been digging, she dropped the calf and walked a half dozen steps toward the cubs that were some 75 yards away. She stood watching and possibly grunting. After watching alertly from the snow slope, the cubs advanced cautiously and tentatively, stopping to look, taking no chances. They remained cautious until they were quite near the mother, when they all fed together.

When the mother found the calf carcass after her chase, she apparently was motivated much as a human mother would be under similar circumstances. She was hungry yet worried about her cubs and wished to return to them. Her behavior was a compromise. Hunger took priority, and she fed, but as her hunger waned, her maternal instinct predominated and she hurried back to her cubs, taking the food with her.

On 1 June 1965 I watched grizzlies seeking caribou calves on the broad flats below Polychrome Pass. One bear had killed a calf and was feeding on it when another bear chased a nearby group of caribou. The feeding bear chased after the other. After a brief altercation in which the feeding bear was chased off, the second bear moved to the calf carcass, picked it up, and galloped off with it. After a few jumps, she dropped the carcass and galloped west about one-half mile where she was joined by a third bear, a 2-year-old cub. The female then led her cub at a steady walk back to the carcass and both fed. It was unusual that the female, upon finding the carcass, immediately fetched her cub before enjoying a meal.

Mistaken Identity

On 20 June, near the saddle of Sable Pass, two yearlings had moved about a 100 yards up slope from their mother. One was standing on its hind legs looking toward the opposite slope, a half-mile or more away, at another mother and her yearling. The two cubs were obviously apprehensive. When the second mother walked along on a contour of the slope, they followed, but on a higher contour as though wishing to maintain maximum distance from her. When their own mother moved up the slope, they kept well in advance of her, and watched alertly the opposite slope where the second bear and cub had been. This mother fed on year-old cranberries and farther up the slope she spent much of her time feeding on fieldmice and lemmings. Her nose informed her which hummocks were occupied, and these she ripped apart easily.

The two apprehensive cubs were soon far in advance of their mother. One of the cubs, light-colored and much smaller than its partner, seemed especially fearful and galloped ahead until it was some distance beyond the large cub that had stopped to feed. I do not know what happened, but the little cub seemed now to be afraid of its own mother. Having moved far ahead and probably having been out of sight much of the time, it perhaps became unsure concerning her identity, mistaking her for the other mother it had recently seen on the far slope. It made short gallops up the slope, to one side or the other, assuming alert, "scared" poses whenever it stopped. Its emotions seemed to keep building up, judging from its extreme exertions. After many dashes, the little cub moved far to one side of the mother, galloped to the bottom of the slope, and crossed a snowdrift a short distance from me. At this time it was almost a half-mile from its mother. Then the cub galloped up the slope to the other side of its mother, circled around her, and continued on nearly to the top of the slope where it repeated the short, fearful dashes, and seemed to undergo an emotional buildup of fear at each stop that caused it to gallop away suddenly. The behavior of the cub was not a game; its anxiety was too prolonged and too obvious for that. All this time the mother fed, unaware of the maneuvering of the little cub. She may have been aware of the large cub feeding some distance up the slope and assumed all was well. Eventually, the small cub maneuvered hesitantly down to the other cub, and at about the same time the mother galloped up the slope. Possibly the little cub had cried. The large cub moved toward the mother and the little one followed hesitantly. When it reached its mother, it sniffed her nose as though to make sure of her identity. The little cub's ramblings had taken about 1-1/2 hours. The mother rolled over on her back and the two yearlings nursed.

On other occasions I have seen cubs behave similarly after being separated from the mother. On 20 September 1961 a yearling was feeding in a patch of berries some distance behind its mother and a second yearling. When he came within sight of her and his twin, he stopped to look but seemed uncertain of their identity. He made two or three short gallops to one side, looking questioningly at each stop, and then approached cautiously, stopping often.

Another yearling, busy digging for a ground squirrel, was left behind when its mother and twin moved on. After capturing and eating the squirrel, he hurried along the trail the rest of the family had followed and suddenly came upon them feeding in a green hollow 15-20 yards away. He stood at attention and uttered a snorting, questioning woof, three or four times. The mother did not look up; the grazing cub raised its head for only a quick look and resumed feeding. The uncertain cub relaxed and started to graze.

Feeding Courtesy

Bears ordinarily do not share animal food with others, even with family members, if supplies are limited, and other bears behave courteously and seldom interfere with a bear feeding on a morsel of ground squirrel or carrion.

On 2 August 1961, the smaller of two 3-year-old bears dashed down a gravel slope in pursuit of a ground squirrel that escaped into a burrow. The bear began digging vigorously and excitedly, jumping about the excavation spraying rocks between his hind legs. His companion watched from 4 or 5 feet up the slope. After about 15 minutes, the bear captured the squirrel and ate it while his companion watched quietly and made no move to interfere.

On 13 July 1962, a blond 4-year-old lay chewing something, perhaps an old bone. The brown twin walked slowly and apparently cautiously toward the blond and lay down facing it, its nose about 2 feet away. Soon, the brown one rolled over on its side and relaxed, but returned to its stomach and reached out with nose toward the blond, as though sniffing at what was being gnawed. The blond looked briefly at its companion who then rolled over in a puddle of water.

On 17 July 1959 the mother of two yearlings dug out a ground squirrel and captured it 6 or 7 yards from its hole. While she fed on it, taking small bites, one of the cubs grabbed the remains. This rarely happens. The mother struck at the cub with both front paws, a bluffing gesture and apparently an outlet for irritation, uttered a low growl, but permitted the cub to keep the squirrel. The cub moved about 7 or 8 yards and spent considerable time eating the remains of the squirrel. The other cub looked on without trying to obtain a share. The mother again dug briefly in the hole, then moved off and grazed. Previously I had not seen mothers voluntarily share their ground squirrels with cubs.

Retirement to Cliffs

During most of the summer, mothers with cubs, as well as other bears, rest day or night, wherever they happen to be feeding. But during the breeding period in May and June, family activity is somewhat different. At this season mothers with cubs climb steep slopes frequently and rest for the night on strategic ledges. Retreats are chosen away from beaten paths, as though for safety. Their only enemy would be other bears, especially the males that at this season travel widely in search of a female. Males sometimes attack cubs, so perhaps cliffs are sought by females to protect their cubs. Below I describe some of my observations of mothers retiring to cliffs (Fig. 24).

Fig. 24. During the breeding season females with cubs often spend the night in cliffs such as these near the Toklat River.

Mother and Two Yearlings Seek Cliffs in Evening

On 18 May 1956 a mother and her two yearlings spent the day digging roots on the lower north slopes of Cathedral Mountain. In the evening they moved upward gradually until 9 p.m., when they stopped feeding and climbed higher up the slope to some cliffs and ledges. They lay down on a ledge and apparently spent the night there, for in the morning they were digging roots a short distance below their beds.

Mother and Yearling Observed in Cliffs on Igloo Mountain

On 5 June 1961, a mother with one yearling cub spent the afternoon digging roots on the Igloo Creek bar. At 7:30 p.m., I watched from my cabin as the bears climbed Igloo Mountain. The yearling led the way up a steep talus slope. In its exuberance it climbed every outcrop it encountered, and sometimes made little side trips for this purpose. Halfway up the slope was a slanted ledge and here the bears stopped on a grassy spot. The mother rolled over on her back and the cub nursed for 4-1/2 minutes. She maintained her position rigidly for about 3 minutes after the nursing, then rolled over and appeared to be viewing the wide expanse of scenery below her—Igloo Creek, the north slopes of Cathedral Mountain, and the tundra reaching to the Teklanika River were all in view. At 8:30 p.m., the bears stood, moved about 20 feet, and lay down again. At 9:30 p.m., when I checked on them the yearling was nursing. I left them for the night and at 5:30 a.m., they were asleep on the same grassy ledge. When I checked at 6:35 a.m., the cub was nursing, and at 7:05 a.m., the female stood up, gazed over the country, and started down the slope.

In the evening I discovered these bears in a draw high on the slope. The mother was grazing in small patches of green grass on the south slope, and as she fed she moved slowly up a draw. About 9 p.m., they started to climb and at 9:10 p.m., reached a small grassy ledge on a sharp ridge, about one-half mile from where they had spent the previous night. They retired for the night at this spot and the following morning left the high ledge at 6:55 a.m., moving down to the swale where they had fed the night before. Thus, on two successive nights these bears had spent the night on a high, grassy bench away from any likely disturbance.

On 7 August 1961, the same mother and yearling were seen about 8:30 p.m., feeding on berries on a slope of Igloo Mountain. I watched them as they fed slowly up the slope until 10 p.m., when it was too dark to see them. I had hoped to observe them retiring for the night but they continued feeding on blueberries in the dark.

Female and Two Yearlings High on Cathedral Mountain

On 30 May 1962 about 7:30 p.m., a female and two yearlings (one crippled) were sleeping on the talus at the base of a cliff near the top of Cathedral Mountain. They were still there when I looked at 11 p.m. At 3 a.m. they were resting 50 yards from the bed, and at 5:30 a.m. they were digging roots 25 yards from where they had been seen at 3 a.m. Apparently, they had risen a few minutes earlier.

Mother and Two-Year-Old Climb High in Cliffs

On 31 May 1962 a mother followed by a 2-year-old cub, fed on roots near the base of the north end of Cathedral Mountain during the day, stopped feeding at 9:30 p.m., and moved on a contour to a canyon. In one place the mother stopped for 10 minutes to dig roots before continuing on her way. I lost sight of them when they disappeared into a canyon around a shoulder, but a little later saw them climbing a long, steep talus slope among sharp pinnacles. They climbed steadily. Some ewes with lambs that had retired for the night in this rough country moved a short distance out of their way but were scarcely noticed by the bears. When the bears neared the top of the mountain, they were hidden among the pinnacles. Apparently, they had climbed high to bed down for the night. In the morning they were feeding again where they had fed the previous evening.

Mother and Two-Year-Old Seek Cliffs

Late in the afternoon of 23 May 1959, a mother and her 2-year-old cub stopped digging for roots and started to climb. They rounded a shoulder of the mountain and continued up the steep talus slopes of a canyon. At times they were hidden by the numerous outcrops and were last seen near the top of the mountain. They apparently were going up high for the night. In the morning they were back near the base of the mountain, digging roots where they had fed the previous day.

Mother and Two Two-Year-Old Cubs Spend Two Nights in Same Cliffs>

On 24 May 1963 I saw a mother with two 2-year-old cubs climb to a high ledge on Cathedral Mountain at 4 p.m., after they had spent the afternoon feeding on roots on lower slopes. They still were resting at 5:20 p.m. By 6:50 p.m., remaining high, they had traveled one-half mile around a shoulder, climbed a steep slope, passed over some cliffs, and dug a platform on a steep slope. The cubs nursed at 7:50 p.m. and then they all lay down on the shelf. The next morning at 4 a.m. the family was still resting in the same spot. Later in the day, they were digging roots where I had seen them feeding the previous day.

On the evening of 25 May at 6:25 p.m., I saw the same family resting close together on a bench high on Cathedral Mountain above where they had fed during the afternoon. The following morning at 7 a.m., they were seen coming down from the cliffs.

On 30 June, about 9:30 p.m., I saw this same family on the north side of Cathedral, climbing high on the slope, They were nursing at 9:55 p.m., after which the mother lay down on the slope, one cub near her, the other feeding 75 yards away. At 10:15 p.m. one cub rested 10 feet from the mother, the other 75 yards away. The following morning at 5 a.m. the family was resting together on a prominent outcrop, a little above where I had left them in the evening.

Mother and Single Two-Year-Old Cub Spend Two Nights in Cliffs

On 25 May 1963 a dark mother and one blond 2-year-old cub climbed a long slope and at 6:30 p.m. reached an outcrop above Tattler Creek. After nursing, they rested. The following morning at 6:30 a.m. they were still in their beds and remained there until 8:45 a.m. They then traveled across a slope and around the far side of a ridge. When crossing a snowfield, they started a considerable snowslide. They galloped across another snowfield, sinking and sliding, and disappeared over a small side ridge. That evening the bears were resting 200 yards from the ledge used the previous night. I was unable to visit them the following morning, but presumably they spent the night on the high slope.

Mother and Two Two-Year-Old Cubs Retire Early

On 30 May 1964 a mother grizzly and her two cubs were digging roots industriously on a slope of Cathedral Mountain. About 4 p.m. the grizzly mother climbed up among some rugged outcrops. When I checked on the family at 8:15 p.m., the mother was still resting on the outcrop and the cubs were digging roots nearby. At 4:30 the next morning, the family was resting, and for 15 minutes there was no movement. Then the mother raised her head a few times for a brief look, and at 4:50 a.m. she stood up, walked a few steps, and gazed at the landscape below her for a minute or two before moving down the slope to resume root digging.

Mother and Two-Year-Old Cub Spend Night in Low Country

On 18 June 1965 at 7:30 p.m., I discovered a mother and her 2-year-old cub resting on a flat near an open stand of tall willow brush. During the next hour, each bear walked a few steps to leave a dropping and returned to its bed. Part of the time the cub rested with its back against the mother. They lay in various positions, on their sides, on their stomachs, with hind legs stretched out behind, and on their backs. The following morning 11 fresh droppings were found near the beds.

On 11 July 1965 I saw the same family climb a low bank above the west branch of East Fork River about 9:10 p.m. The cub nursed and then the bears apparently settled down for the night, because at 4:30 a.m. I saw them walking away from the beds to graze on the river bar. On these two occasions they had not retreated to cliffs for the night, although the night of 18 June was still in the rutting period.

Cliffs Sought in Daytime

Besides retiring to cliffs at night, mothers, especially those with spring cubs, and young bears seek high country and cliffs for escape from danger during the day. On 19 July 1953 two photographers surprised a mother with a spring cub. She was about 50 yards away and faced them with head down in a stiff posture, but she soon relaxed and lay down for about 10 minutes with the cub between her paws so that only its head showed. Then she led the cub toward a pond just south of Cathedral Mountain. When she caught sight of a large bull caribou ahead of her, she ran back toward the cub as though to shield it, then led the way, galloping to the mountain slope and continued to the top. She probably had not identified the caribou—perhaps she thought another human was approaching.

On 18 June 1953 I watched a young bear, perhaps a 3-year-old, grazing on grass, horsetail, sourdock, and the herb Boykinia. When he neared a pole he used it as a back scratcher, twice standing on hind legs to rub. He sniffed at a few ground-squirrel holes, then climbed some distance up the mountain and lay down on a prominent lookout point, apparently for security. An old bear usually will lie down to rest wherever he happens to be, but this young bear sought a point from which he could watch his surroundings.

On 20 June 1953 three of us came upon a mother bear with three spring cubs near the south end of Cathedral Mountain. Upon seeing us, she took her young family over the top of the mountain. Later in the day, and farther north along Igloo Creek, I discovered a mother and a spring cub. She led the way up a long cliffy slope on which climbing was difficult because the terrain was steep and the gravel loose. The cub climbed more easily.

On 2 June 1955 a mother and two spring cubs were below this same slope. She climbed the steep, gravelly incline, as had the mother 2 years before. One cub started sliding, but turned so he faced uphill and managed to stop by digging in with all four feet. After climbing almost to the top of the high steep slope, the mother recovered her composure, moved along a contour, and gradually worked her way down again to the creek bottom.

On 4 June 1955 a mother with two yearlings, after feeding on a caribou carcass, climbed up among cliffs to a point one-quarter mile away and rested where she probably felt secure. However, the following day, after feeding on the carcass, she rested near it.

On 30 May 1959 about 5:30 p.m. a mother with a single 2-year-old cub hurriedly left a mother and two 2-year-olds and a set of large, twin bears that were 300 to 400 yards away on the Toklat River. The mother and her cub climbed two-thirds of the way up the northeast slope of Divide Mountain, stopping only when they were among the cliffs. A few minutes after they stopped on a ledge, the cub nursed. I watched them resting for 1 hour and 40 minutes after the nursing, and left them at 7:30 p.m. It seems likely that this family spent the night in the cliffs.

In 1962 I observed on several occasions 3- or 4-year-old cubs resting alone during the day in the rocks above East Fork River.

In the early morning of 3 July 1965, I saw a lone bear, a mother with two spring cubs, and a mother with one yearling at the base of the north slope of East Branch Range. The lone bear and the mother with spring cubs were perhaps 150 yards apart, the other family 300 yards away over a rise.

Later, I saw the lone bear and the mother with spring cubs climbing the steep slope about 250 yards apart, a deep draw between them. I had not seen the start of the climb and do not know what instigated it. Perhaps the bears startled each other and each sought safety in the cliffs. As the bears climbed, they watched each other but the lone bear climbed more rapidly. Far up the steep slope the family crossed the draw below the lone bear. One of three snowfields they crossed was so steep that one of the cubs inadvertently slid about 40 feet before he was able to face upward and stop the slide with his claws. The family disappeared among the outcrops, and the lone bear climbed to the top of the ridge where later I saw him resting.

Thus, bears, especially families in spring and early summer, seek resting areas that offer a good view of the surroundings.

Mother—Cub Separation

The mother—cub association lasts over 2 years, much longer than has been supposed. The cubs remain with the mother for 2 full years and for at least a part of the third. Occasionally, a single cub may remain with its mother for 3 full years and a few months into the 4th year.

Of the 69 mothers followed by 2-year-old cubs that I have recorded, 30 still were followed by their cubs after 1 July. Of these 30 families, 11 were known to be intact in August, and 8, in September. Five mothers were followed by cubs over 3 years old, and two other 3-year-old cubs were near the mother under special circumstances. Several of the families that I failed to see after 30 June probably were intact in July and later.

It may be significant that, with one exception, only single-cub families were intact when the cub was over 3 years old. It is logical to assume that the single cub is most likely to remain with its mother in its 4th year because cubs seek companionship and a single cub has only its mother. On the other hand, twins and triplets early become rather independent in their play and companionship, so that for them a break from the mother may be easier.

Various incidents pertaining to the family breakup will be described to show some behavioral characteristics at that time.

An Early Separation of Cubs Due to Breeding

On 18 May 1960, as I was starting to climb a ridge on Cathedral Mountain about 1 mile north of Tattler Creek, I caught a glimpse of three bears climbing to cross the base of the ridge I was on. They were about 100 yards away and coming directly toward me. I retreated to my car which was parked on the road near the adjacent creek. In a few minutes the bears appeared, moving forward methodically in single file, the mother leading, and the two sturdy 2-year-old cubs following closely. They crossed the base of the ridge where I had been, crossed the creek, and came directly toward me. When they were 50 yards away they saw me, looked, turned slowly, retreated a few yards, climbed a steep bank, and dropped down on the other side. I recognized the family as the brown mother and one blond and one dark cub that I had known the previous year. Now the cubs were about 2-1/4 years old. They crossed Igloo Creek and climbed a slope. Here, they fed on the previous year's crowberry crop for about 10 minutes, then continued one-half mile to another slope much favored by bears at this time of year. All began turning over sod on the slope to feed on the roots of the herb Hedysarum. At 11:45 a.m., 1-1/2 hours after they were sighted, the mother lay down and the blond cub moved to her side, but moved away in a few moments to continue digging roots. In 3 minutes the mother stood up, took a few steps, and lay on her back in nursing position. Both cubs hurried to her and nursed for 4 minutes. Then she turned over, moved a short distance, lay on her stomach, and the cubs rested against her, one on each side. At 12:40 p.m. the mother stood up briefly then lay down again, rolled over on her back, and the cubs nursed for 5 minutes. Five minutes after nursing, the cubs went to feed on roots. At 1:30 p.m. one of the cubs returned to the mother, who was still resting on her side, and pushed his head under her arm, trying to nurse. In a few minutes the other cub came over and the mother obligingly turned over on her back and a 4-minute nursing ensued. Three nursings in less than 2 hours! At 1:50 p.m. the mother moved southward, crossing slopes and draws and Tattler Creek as she proceeded to Sable Pass, without loitering along the way. Moving westward on Sable Pass to a point near the base of Sable Mountain, the bears stopped at intervals to feed on berries. About 5 p.m., as the cubs continued to feed, the mother moved forward and was soon about a quarter mile ahead. Just before dropping into a deep ravine she looked back for the cubs who were galloping toward her. As soon as the cubs reached her, she reversed her direction and started eastward at a gallop. Apparently something attracted her attention when she stopped to look back toward the cubs. She hurried, alternately galloping and walking rapidly, stopping a couple of times to look back at the cubs who were following a little distance behind and I heard her cry sharply, as though urging them to hurry. Next, I saw an eagle circling low and almost alighting on a steep, bare slope ahead of the bear. A little later a cow caribou ran down this slope and, as she passed, the cubs made a short dash toward her. The mother bear galloped up the steep slope to the spot where the eagle had hovered and picked up a dead, newborn calf caribou. The head and legs of the calf dangled from her jaws as she galloped down the slope to more gentle terrain.

The feeding behavior was interesting. The mother lay on her stomach facing downhill as she fed on the carcass and a cub was tugging on either side, at right angles to the mother. After 15 minutes the carcass was dismembered, and each cub moved a short distance away with a sizeable piece. The mother ate what remained, sniffed about a little, then approached the blond cub slowly and warily, and watched him as she lay crouched on her stomach for almost a minute, a few feet away; then she made a sudden pounce on the cub's piece of carrion. The cub drew back with some sharp cries but managed to retain some of the meat. When the mother had devoured her stolen morsel, she went up to sniff at the spot where most of the calf had been eaten, then repeated her pilfering maneuver, grabbing the remains from the cub. At first, the calf carcass was common property, but after the bears had separated, each developed a sense of property that was recognized by them all.

At 6:20 p.m. the mother rolled over on her back and the blond cub nursed. Three times the cub stopped nursing to lick the mother's face. I guessed that it was licking blood from the fur. In 4 minutes the mother rolled over on her side and when the cub persisted in trying to nurse, she rolled over on her stomach. About this time the dark cub, 20 yards up the slope, finished his piece of calf carcass. He had missed the nursing. When I left at 6:45 p.m., the mother was lying on her stomach and close on either side was a cub also on its stomach.

I relate these observations to show the intimate relationship that exists in the family so close to the time of family breakup.

Two days later, on 20 May, I met the two cubs on the west side of East Fork River, about 3 miles from where I had left them with their mother on the 18th. The two cubs dropped down to the broad, gravel river bar, crossed several channels of the river, and fed on roots along the east side. After 2 hours of feeding, they started to re-cross the bar. Midway across, they were attracted by something up the river and one stood on hind legs to watch. Then both started galloping westward. Soon a huge, dark, extremely fat male grizzly came into view. He was so large and fat that he could manage only a laborious shuffling trot. The cubs climbed the steep slope, keeping about 100 yards or less ahead of the male, stopping frequently to watch his progress. The male gave up the pursuit when he reached the ridge top. The two cubs were already managing on their own very well.

On the following day, 21 May, the cubs were in the same locality. Just below the East Fork bridge they dropped off the ridge, galloped across the river, and continued down the bar to the entrance of a narrow draw, just beyond a bluff. Here they received a scare, for they galloped back the way they had come. They climbed 50 or 60 yards up the steep face of the ridge and lay down for 15 or 20 minutes, watching with strained attention the mouth of the draw where they had been frightened. They moved a few yards further on out of my view. Their interest in the draw from which they had fled suggested that their mother was there and very likely with a male. I watched the draw for 2 hours but did not see a bear emerge. I assumed that if the mother were consorting with a male I would see her often in the area in the following days, so I departed without investigating. The next day two photographer friends who had known the family saw a pair of bears at the East Fork bridge, and their description indicated that the female was the mother of the cubs. I saw the mother alone on 27 May. If she had mated the honeymoon was short, but long enough, for it is likely that she was ready to breed at once when she left the cubs. (The following year she had two cubs in the spring.) The mother and the 2-year-old cubs remained in the Sable Pass area all summer, but mother and cubs were never seen together. On three occasions she was seen about one-half mile from the two cubs, but too far for them to be cognizant of each other. The early separation of this family appears to have been due to the mother coming in heat.

On 11 June 1960 two other 2-year-old cubs were seen alone along Igloo Creek. They also probably had been deserted by a mother in heat.

Drifting Apart

In 1940 three robust 2-year-old cubs followed their mother throughout the summer. It is doubtful if this female mated for during the breeding season the family was seen at short intervals. On 17 and 18 September the family was still intact, but on 23 September the three cubs were fully one-half mile from the mother. They may have rejoined her later, but the relationship had been very loose for some time, and it is likely that they had drifted apart.

Late August Separation

On 21 August 1956 a mother and two dark 2-year-old cubs were feeding on buffaloberry a mile beyond Toklat bridge. The following day the mother was feeding about one-half mile from the two cubs. On 24 August the female was not seen and the two cubs were moving about together, apparently on their own.

Early September Separation

In 1959 I observed a family in the same buffaloberry area west of the Toklat River where I had observed a breach in 1956. The circumstances were much the same. On 4 September the cubs were feeding with their mother. The following day they were far up a draw near some sheep that were keeping an eye on them. Later, the cubs came down and crossed the road near where three of us were standing. A bear that appeared to be the mother had been feeding near the stream when we first arrived and she later moved over a rise a mile away. On 7 September the two cubs were together with no other bear in sight. Apparently, the cubs were on their own, whether due to the mother's antagonism or to a mutual loss of attachment between mother and cubs was not learned.

Separation as Result of Mutual Inclination

In the summer of 1961 I observed a blondish female and two rather dark 2-year-old cubs on 26 different days beginning on 25 June. On 25 July, when I spent several hours with this family, I saw nursings at 9:30 a.m. and at 2:50 p.m. It seemed to be a rather cozy family. On 26 August the mother and cubs fed together on friendly terms, the cubs feeding close to the mother and also 100 or 200 yards from her. On 27 August I watched the cubs feeding together for 4 hours. Later, I discovered the mother almost a mile away. When last seen, the cubs were feeding eastward and the mother was moving west. On 28 August the cubs again were feeding together about one-half mile from the mother. On 1 September only the two cubs were seen moving about together. Apparently, a separation of the mother and cubs had taken place as a result of mutual inclinations. No antagonism was noted.

Intolerant Mother Causes Family Breakup

In 1960 I watched frequently a well-marked mother and two 2-year-old cubs that I had observed many times the previous year. The family made its first appearance on 30 June 1960 and was seen every day but one until 12 July. During this period a larger bear that appeared to be a male stayed near the family on rather familiar terms, as though a breeding period were in the process of terminating (see section on mating). After 12 July, I did not see these bears for a month; apparently, they had moved a few miles southward.

On 11 August, when I discovered the family about 5 miles west of the top of Sable where they had been seen last on 12 July, the group was breaking up; even the two cubs went off in different directions. I first noticed the blond cub as it fed in a semicircle. The female was feeding about 300 yards from this cub and 50 yards from the very dark cub that was standing, watching its mother. I guessed that it was in disfavor. After a time, it fed within 30 yards of her and disappeared behind a slight rise. In about 15 minutes the mother moved behind the same rise, and the dark cub emerged from the opposite side. He moved about 70 yards away and lay down, apparently retreating from the mother. A little later the blond cub moved toward the mother in its feeding and disappeared behind the same rise, but at once emerged with a rush. Apparently, it had been threatened by the mother. This cub alternately galloped and walked eastward about 1-1/2 miles. At the same time the dark cub started westward at a fast walk and was last seen about 2 miles away. The mother remained feeding. On the following day the mother was feeding one-half mile to the east and the blond cub was near the spot where first seen on the previous day. This cub was seen here again on 16 August; on the 17th the mother was in the area and the blond cub was about 200 yards away. The blond cub approached quite near a draw the mother had entered, but later galloped away as though threatened. What appeared to be the dark cub was traveling along foothills to the south, a mile or more away. On 18 August the mother and the blond cub were seen in the area about one mile apart. The mother had been the aggressor in causing the separation.

Late September Separation of Mother and Two-Year-Old Cubs

Sam Woolcock told me that late one summer he watched a mother followed by two large cubs that he thought were 2-year-olds. Suddenly the mother growled and threatened the cubs who galloped away into the distance. It appeared that this mother no longer tolerated them. The surprising element which Woolcock pointed out was the long retreat of the cubs and they apparently had no intention of returning. The behavior of these cubs was similar to the behavior of those in the incident I described above.

Breeding Mother Antagonistic to Old Cub

On 9 June 1955 a large male and a female were consorting between the forks of the Toklat River. Both bears were digging roots. Near them was a small bear that I judged to be a 3-year-old. It dug roots too, but most of the time it just stood and looked toward the other two bears. After a time, it circled downwind and walked slowly to within 25 yards of the female. She made a short charge of about 10 yards, causing the small bear to gallop away. Later, the cub moved away slowly from the male who was feeding toward it. The next time the cub approached the female she made a determined charge of about 100 yards. The cub persisted and a third time moved close to her and stopped 35 yards away, watching as though wanting to join her. When the male in its feeding moved gradually toward the young bear, it retreated slowly a short distance. Apparently the mating session was breaking up the mother-cub relationship.

Breeding Female Tolerating Old Cubs

On 27 June 1961 I watched a pair of breeding bears whose behavior differed from that in the incident just described. Two large 2- or 3-year-old cubs fed in the area, sometimes within 100 yards of a pair. The male was observed mating with the female for a prolonged period. Later, one of the cubs approached the female until they stood facing each other, with noses only 2 or 3 feet apart. Apparently the cub was still on friendly terms with its mother. As the male moved slowly toward the mother and cub, the cub walked away for about 200 yards. Two days later the male and female were one-quarter mile apart, with one cub feeding about 100 yards from the female. This was late in the breeding season which suggests that the mating of the pair had terminated. These bears were not seen again so it was not learned whether the cubs resumed a close association with the mother.

Cubs Still With Mother When Over Three Years Old

In 1961 a very blond mother and yearling were seen at intervals on Igloo Mountain and seen frequently there in 1962 when the cub was over 2 years old. On 11 August 1962 I watched the two bears cross several ridges and draws as they traveled toward the Big Creek side of the mountain. The cub led the way. He was the restless one and the mother followed compliantly. On one occasion the cub was two ridges ahead of the mother, who occasionally tarried to feed in a draw. Once the cub waited briefly until she came into view over a ridge, then continued on his way. The same behavior was noted on 14 August. The mother was not indifferent to the cub, for she followed him even though his restless behavior was unusual and apparently different from her own tempo. The two bears were last seen on 11 September. When the cub was 3 years old, I saw mother and cub in the area on 30 and 31 May 1963, still on friendly terms. Their unusual blondness made misidentification unlikely. The two were not seen together after 31 May, but a week later I saw what appeared to be the cub. Probably the female moved away to breed. Apparently they had hibernated together.

Mother and Two-Year-Old Close Companions in September

It seems likely that a 2-year-old may hibernate occasionally with its mother. In 1962 a mother and 2-year-old cub that I had been observing for 2 years were still associated closely when last seen on 12 September as they left Sable Pass for the Teklanika drainage.

An Old Cub Chased by a Mother With Spring Cub

On 14 July 1953 I watched a mother with a single spring cub chasing away a large cub, probably a 3-year-old, that persisted in remaining near (Murie 1961). Once, when the mother rushed at the big cub, she overtook him and bit him severely on a hind leg. The big cub had followed the mother and spring cub all spring judging from the familiarity that existed among them. The spring cub had no fear of the larger cub. But on this day the mother's tolerance had apparently reached a limit. It appeared that the mother had mated while being followed by a 2-year-old cub the previous year and that the cub had remained the rest of the summer and hibernated with her. The coming of the new cub caused unusual complications (Figs. 25, 26, 27).

Fig. 25. Mother with spring cub, followed by a 3-year-old cub.

Fig. 26. The old cub watches mother, not daring to approach. Earlier she had charged, bit him severely on a hind leg, and stood over him.

Fig. 27. The older cub, chased by the female, had approached close to her and is here leaving in a hurry as she growls threateningly.

Mother and Three-Year-Old Cub Together

On 5 September 1965 I watched a mother and her single 2-year-old cub near the Toklat River foraging for buffaloberry and digging briefly for roots. The berry crop was a failure so the two bears wandered widely as they searched for berries among the willows. They became separated frequently but always sought each other when this happened. The companionship seemed as close and intimate as ever. I knew this family well, having watched them many times during the three summers the mother had been abroad with this cub.

The following day I returned to look for the family and found them on Highway Pass; they had moved over 2 miles farther west since the previous evening, and were travelling at a fast walk. A few times the female broke into a lope, and I could see from her alertness and general behavior that she was hoping to surprise a ground squirrel. She stopped at a set of holes, dug for a few minutes, then loped forward and came upon another set of holes which, after a little digging, yielded a squirrel. The cub who had tarried at the first set of holes to continue digging, captured a squirrel about the same time. The mother moved over a rise, but reappeared and returned 150 yards to her cub who was finishing his squirrel. The female then led the way as they loped toward Slide Lake. They stopped for a few moments at some bushes, apparently a few buffaloberries, then moved forward steadily along Slide Lake and disappeared north of it. The companionship and solicitude exhibited by the mother at this late date suggested that she would hibernate with her cub, and that the cub still would be with her when it was over 3 years old.

In 1966, the following spring, the family was seen on the Toklat River where it often was seen during the previous 3 years. It was seen on 30 May, 3 and 4 June, and was reported on 12 and 13 June. The mother and 3-year-old were on friendly, intimate terms when last observed.


No doubt a variety of factors cause the variation in timing of family breakup. The onset of the breeding season when cubs are 2 years old is associated frequently but not always with separation. Some females either do not come into breeding condition, are not found by a male or perhaps resume association with their cubs after breeding. In most cases the mother plays an active, aggressive role in terminating her association with her cubs. Sometimes, especially in litters of two or three, the cubs drift away from their mothers of their own accord.

Cub Companionship After Separation From Mother

After twins or triplets separate from their mother they generally continue to associate. Over a period of years, I have seen over 50 sets of twins and 3 or 4 sets of triplets continue their companionship. One set of twins remained together for three summers after their mother left them as 2-year-olds.

Brown Female's Cubs

In 1959 a female was followed by two well-marked yearlings, one dark brown and the other blond. Both cubs appeared to be females. The family was observed, confined closely to Sable Pass, from mid-June until early August. In 1960 the two cubs were on their own on 20 May. When these cubs were yearlings, the smaller, blond cub was more active, always straying more widely when feeding, and this restlessness continued after the two cubs were on their own. These cubs remained together on the East Fork River bar from 20 May to 30 May. On 31 May the blond cub moved a mile up the river bar. On 5 June they were still a mile apart. By 19 June the dark cub was near the top of Sable Pass, 3 miles to the east, but the blond was not seen. On the 26th both cubs were seen near the top of Sable Pass about one-half mile apart, but on the next 2 days only the dark cub was seen. On 7 July the two were together near the top of Sable Pass, and for the remainder of the summer, until 26 September, the last day I observed them, they always were seen together. During this time they were seen at short intervals on 27 days.

When together, the bears were always chummy, although I did not see them play together more than two or three times. They frequently rested, touching or only a few inches apart. On 7 July, after they had fed steadily on dock for one-half hour, they lay down side by side. The one lying slightly farther back moved a few inches forward, then a few more inches until its nose was even with that of its companion. The blond cub remained much more active all summer, seemed always restless, and was generally in the lead when they fed or traveled.

On 9 May 1961 the two cubs, now 3 years old, were seen along Igloo Creek 2 miles from Sable Pass. The following day they were a mile apart. I did not see either bear again until 23 May, but from then until 15 June I saw the dark cub nine times in the East Fork River area. Between 11 and 17 July the cubs were together, ranging from the top of Sable Pass to a point about 6 miles to the west on Polychrome Pass, where they were seen on 17 July. While the blond fed in a green swale, the dark cub moved over a rise. Half an hour later, when the blond was leaving the swale, the dark cub returned to meet it. They touched noses, rose up on hind legs to hug and wrestle briefly, and walked away over the top, the blond in the lead. Between 18 July and 18 September the twins were seen together 22 times and apart (up to 2 miles) 9 times. Frequently, one bear was left far behind temporarily in their feeding activities. On 17 August I saw the dark cub follow a trail of the blond for over one-half mile. The blond saw its partner approaching from a distance and recognized it, for it resumed feeding at once. From the middle of August until last seen on 18 September the cubs were usually together. On the last day they were feeding down Igloo Creek toward the place where they were first seen in spring.

In 1962 the blond cub was first seen on 2 June along Igloo Creek. The brown cub was seen on the East Fork bar on 15 June and on Sable Pass on 24 June. The two big cubs were observed together on Sable Pass 18 times between 3 July and 3 August. On 23 August they walked up the bar of the East Fork River, the blond leading the way. They were not seen again in 1962 and were not recognized in 1963. In 1962 the cubs were 4-1/2 years old, and both showed more maturity in their actions. The cub-like quickness of movement was gone and the gait more deliberate. After they came together on 3 July, they remained associated closely, often feeding only a few feet apart and resting close together (Fig. 28).

Fig. 28. Twins, about 4 years old, still companionable after leaving their mother.

Other Twins Together

On 24 July 1963 I noted a large, dark cub with a crippled left front foot feeding on Sable Pass. When walking, he carried the injured foot up and his movements were very restricted. He was alone on the following 2 days, but on the 27th a blond cub, slightly smaller, rested 6 or 7 feet from him. After a time the blond stood up, nosed the cripple, and moved away as it grazed. The cripple hopped toward the blond, who, on seeing him, returned and played with him for 25 minutes. The cripple was handicapped in the play by his bad foot. The blond was the aggressor and for much of the time was on top of the cripple. Later, the cripple was on top, and with a firm hold on the blond's neck, shook him vigorously. The blond obviously enjoyed this pummeling as it lay on its back, relaxed. Then they stood on hind legs wrestling. This phase of the play was most difficult for the cripple, and apparently he did not enjoy it for after a time, the cripple stiffened in his attitude and the blond withdrew. Later in the day, they fed one-half mile apart. On 28 and 29 July they were together, the blond feeding nearby and then far off, very restless. The following day only the cripple was seen. They were together on 1 August; on 6 August the cripple was 2 miles down Igloo Creek, apparently searching for berries, his foot much better. On 9 August they were together again on Sable Pass, the last time I saw them in 1963. These twins behaved similarly to the brown female's twins; that is, they continued to associate but often moved apart and were out of contact for a day or longer.

Twins Split Up

On 11 August 1960 a mother separated from her 2-year-old cubs (see Mother—Cub Separation). When threatened the dark cub traveled at least 2 miles west, and the blond traveled east 1-1/2 miles. On 12, 16, 17, and 18 August the blond cub and the mother were in the same general area. The dark cub was seen a mile to the south on the 17th, traveling southeast. Whether the two cubs rejoined each other was not determined, but it appeared that they were not seeking each other. The blond was considerably larger than the dark one, and I had noted earlier in the summer that the blond played so aggressively that the dark one often tried to escape. This background suggests that the dark cub may not have been anxious to continue the association.

Two Companions Call to Each Other

On 25 August 1949 I startled two bears in the woods along the Teklanika River. One ran into the woods above the road and the other ran below the road. One started to utter chuckling, baby-like sounds that were answered by the other bear. They called and answered three or four times before the bear on the lower side circled to join the other. This is the only time I have heard cubs call to each other. They appeared to be 2- or possibly 3-year-olds.

Companionable Behavior of Three Cubs

On 13 July 1962 on Sable Pass I watched the behavior of four 3- or 4-year-old cubs for several hours. Three of them maneuvered about together and may have been triplets; the fourth rested 200 yards from the others. He was the most inactive young bear I have ever seen and rested during the 8 hours I watched. A dark-brown cub was the aggressor in play with a blond cub. He kept pushing in toward her, finally taking briefly a breeding position. Soon after this, the play broke up, the dark bear walked to a tan cub and stood beside it, the blond also moved close, and all fed for a time and later rested. A few hours later the brown and tan were traveling together down the slope and the blond followed. When they reached a snowfield, the brown chased the blond, who retreated at an easy lope. When the brown walked away, she followed. Soon all three moved up the slope again, the two dark ones together and the blond just ahead of them. The dark one followed the blond at intervals. The two brown bears were together often but did not play. Perhaps the blond was a female and therefore attractive to the teenaged brown which had the appearance of a male.

The blond at one point lay on its belly chewing something, perhaps an old bone, The dark-brown, ever interested, moved to the blond, and lay down before it on its stomach with head resting on the ground so that its nose was only 2 feet from what it was chewing. He then rolled over on his side, back on his stomach, and pushing nose forward sniffed at what was being chewed. Bear etiquette apparently made him behave properly. (Cubs often watch stoically while their mothers feed on ground squirrels.)

The three then went higher on the slope to a long snowbank. The blond and the dark bear played. The blond, having the uphill position, dominated the wrestling match, until the brown galloped away, followed by the blond. A little later all three disappeared from view.

Why the tan cub did not play and why the fourth bear remained aloof were mysteries. The latter may have been hurt slightly in rough play. I saw these bears frequently, often scattered, but never knew their relationship.

On a few occasions I have seen a lone cub chase a smaller lone cub so earnestly that the small one traveled some distance after the pursuit stopped, as though wishing to remove himself from the area, at least for a time.

To what extent unrelated cubs mingle after leaving the mothers was not determined, but general observations indicate that such cubs remain apart. Solitary life is so typical of adult bears that one would expect young, lone bears to become accustomed to it.

Mock Fighting

On 3 July 1948 two bears that I judged to be 2 or 3 years old were facing each other about 10 feet apart when discovered. The darker one moved backward in slow motion, one leg at a time, up a bank. Once at the top, he moved away slowly, keeping one side toward his immobile companion. They behaved as though hostility existed between them. As the dark bear began grazing away, the light one galloped toward him, and the dark one snarled. Both bears growled with jaws open and close together. The light one closed in and seemed to bite the neck of his companion. They separated, stood watching each other, then both grazed for a time, moving about without trying to separate. When a hundred yards apart, the light bear again galloped to the dark one who turned and growled. The light one stood still with nose almost touching the ground, a sort of on guard pose, and the dark one soon lay down on its stomach until the light one walked away. While the light one started digging for a ground squirrel, the dark one walked rapidly away. Seeing this retreat, the light galloped after its companion who snarled and again lay down. The light one circled, and soon they both fed toward their original position. Later there was another chase, and after a time the dark bear walked off some distance and was not followed. The two bears had behaved in much the same manner as a mated pair. The following day they were seen about one-half mile apart.

On 14 July I saw the light bear gallop toward the dark one and soon overtake him. They faced each other a few feet apart with heads down, noses almost touching the ground. A little later they stood side by side, heads still down. The light bear edged slowly away and then the dark one chased after it and soon they faced each other again, the light one lying down part of the time. The dark one backed away slowly, then walked off. Later the bears, now some distance apart, were seen rolling on their backs, legs pawing the air. They had another chase. Three or four hundred yards up the slope was a lone, larger bear who later came down the slope in her feeding and chased the dark one, who stopped after a gallop and the two faced each other. The dark one lay down on its stomach and the big bear moved off. This third bear was large enough to be the mother but it may have been an older cub.

On 25 July these three bears were seen again in a green swale below a snowbank. The two smaller bears chased each other in play, then all three grazed in an area 50-75 yards across. The two smaller bears climbed onto the snowbank and for over one-half hour wrestled, mauled, and mouthed each other. When they moved off the snow, one climbed a 6-foot boulder and, from above, sparred with the one below. Then both were crowded on the rock. They wrestled but there apparently was a truce about shoving off the rock. This play continued for about 10 minutes after which they wandered over the skyline to the south. The large bear, possibly the mother, fed northward. This might have been a family in the process of breaking up.


After separating from their mother, twins and triplets frequently continue their companionship for a while. However, even when relationships remain friendly, the animals often wander alone. Such amicability and tolerance can extend at least to 4-1/2 years of age and possibly longer.

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Last Updated: 06-Dec-2007