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BEHAVIOUR  - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment

(Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Ursus arctos - Brown bear)
  • Bears take fruit, berries, nuts and grain from the ground, tear up berry patches, overturn rocks and tear up rotting logs to get insects, dig for roots and bulbs, walk through standing grain crops and draw the grain towards them with their forepaws. 
  • As well as eating carrion, they actively prey on a variety of ungulates, particularly calves, but also adults. Calves and yearlings rather than adults of livestock are taken most commonly, and in forests rather than on open range.
  • During the salmon run they may gorge and eat only a bite of each fish caught. The method used for catching fish - teeth, paws, or teeth and paws - is learned by cubs from their mother. 
  • Brown bears also dig for ground-dwelling rodents, and can get substantial amounts of food in this manner.
  • Brown bears sometimes cache carcasses of prey, remaining near the cache. Caching may reduce decomposition and hide the carcass from competitors.

Further information on diet is provided in Brown bear Ursus arctos  Ursus arctos - Natural Diet (Literature Reports)

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Feeding Behaviour

Source Information

General

  • Feed on e.g. nuts and berries. Dig up roots, insects and small mammals. Scavenge carcasses, hunt ungulates and hunt salmon as they move upstream. (B147, B285.w4)

  • Bears use a wide variety of foods, switching between foods depending on availability; items which are high-protein and/or high-energy are preferred when available. (B406.36.w36)
  • Rocks may be overturned as the bear searches for food. (B180.w3)
  • The appetite in autumn is voracious, to put on subcutaneous fat for the winter. (B421.w1, B422.w14)
  • Brown bears seek out seasonally abundant food resources such as berry crops in burnt areas, and salmon streams. At such sites of high food abundance they may be found feeding communally, with a social hierarchy forming. (B406.36.w36)
  • These bears turn over rocks and stones to find insects and small crustaceans, grub up roots and bulbs, also feeding on succulent shoots of young grasses. They will take carrion and will also kill domestic goats and sheep and will dig up voles (Alticola spp. (Muridae - Rats, mice, voles, gerbils etc. (Family))). (B425)
  • A study of northern interior Canadian grizzly bears in the Yukon found that bears dug for roots, grazed grass, ate willow catkins, consumed various berries where these were available in concentrated patches, and ate carrion if available. Bears actively hunted for ground squirrels (Spermophilus undulatus), digging for these. (D283.w5)
  • In Plitvice Lakes National Park, Yugoslavia, brown bears were found to eat mainly vegetable material, with 76% of scats containing only vegetable matter, 20% containing vegetable and insect matter, 2% plant and mammal material and 2% plant, mammal and insect material. In March to May, the most important components of the diet were herbaceous plants the bears dug for the tuber of lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), which was the only plant food in spring with a high nitrogen-free extract. In summer they ate summer fruits and cultivated oats. In autumn, the diet was mainly fruits and nuts. Bears climbed trees to reach fruit and nuts before these dropped, as shown by claw marks visible on hazel and plum trees. Before denning, they fed heavily on beechnuts. In the autumn, the bears showed intensive digging for small mammals. There was evidence of preying on cattle and sheep, and on deer, with a bear scat containing deer remains found near a deer carcass. Bears occasionally took carcasses and garbage from baiting pints and garbage dumps around the boundaries of the park. (J345.7.w2)

Vegetable foods

  • Digging for underground parts of roots is seen thoughout North Amerincn brown bear populations. (D284.w3)
  • Bears were observed digging for Hedysarum roots, one was described using a sweeping rocking motion to pull the plant top and soil under his body, extracting the long fibrous root with his front claws, lifting the root to his mouth, held between the front of one foreleg and the paws and claws of the other, then pulled through this by the head to produce "a white, shredded spaghetti-like object which was moved into the mouth by alternate tooth and tongue movements." They ate about a root per minute, sometimes digging and eating a root within a period of 20 seconds, and feeding for about 90 minutes before resting for 30-50 minutes. (D283.w5)
  • When feeding on soapberries, the most intensive feeding involved the bear sprawling in the bush and systematically using its lips to strip each branch of berries; some berries would always be dropped. The bear would feed on each bush for about 10-15 minutes. Bears would have to eat huge numbers of these small berries. (D283.w5)
  • On willows, a bear would eat catkins by drawing its mouth over the branch to break of the catkins and buds. For higher branches, the bear would stand on its hind feet to reach the branches with its mouth. For branches which were higher still, the bear would push the tree over and stand on the main branch, then feed. (D283.w5)
  • Berry patches are torn up. (B180.w3)
  • In fall, take fruit, berries, nuts and grain mainly from the ground. (B392.8.w8)
  • When feeding on grain, bears move through the crop, using the fore paws to draw plants towards them and forming lanes through the crops. (B422.w14)
  • Brown bears climb trees to reach fruit and nuts before these drop, as shown by claw marks visible on hazel and plum trees. (J345.7.w2)

Fish

  • Brown bears catch fish with their jaws, or pin it underwater with the forepaws then dip the head underwater to grasp the fish. (B180.w3)
  • In coastal areas, prey on salmonid fishes, using various techniques depending on the topography, water level and fish abundance. (D243)
  • The method brown bear use for catching fish - teeth, paws, or teeth and paws, is learned by cubs from their mother. (B144)
  • During the salmon run, can gorge, and may eat only one bite from each salmon. (B285.w4)

Ungulates

  • In summer, kill animals such as sheep, goats and ponies. (B392.8.w8)
  • Bears may actively predate Alces alces - Moose and caribou (Rangifer tarandus - Reindeer), particularly calves. Adults are general predated when deep snow or other factors handicaps their movement. (B406.36.w36)
  • Prey on Alces alces - Moose, usually calves under two months of age, also heavily pregnant females and females trying to protect their calves, also occasionally on caribou (Rangifer tarandus - Reindeer) (both adults and calves preyed on in the Brooks Range, Alaska) and on Sus scrofa - Wild boar. (D243)
  • Calves may be located by scent, herds charged, prey attacked at river crossings, ambush (even of adult Ovibos moschatus - Musk ox), and killing when prey is encountered accidentally. Deep snow prevents prey from escaping, making hunting easier. (D243)
  • Grizzly bears with caribou (Rangifer tarandus - Reindeer) calving herds available include caribou in their diet both as carrion and as prey. Calves are taken as prey most commonly, but adults are predated also. In some areas, bears may leave their home ranges or follow migrating caribou herds to take advantage of the availability of calving caribou. (J345.7.w4)
  • In Yellowstone National Park it was noted that some brown bears deliberately and effectively predated elk (Cervus elaphus - Red deer (North American Elk)) calves during a period iin spring, each killing up to one calf daily (one bear caught five calves within a period of 15 minutes). The main hunting techniques used were searching and chasing. (J345.8.w7)
    • For 70 observed hunts, 26 were successful; in May, 71% of observed hunts were successful, in June, 42% and in July only 7%. Three different techniques were used while hunting. (J345.8.w8)
  • Domestic animals are most likely to be preyed on in forests rather than open range, and calves and yearlings are more likely to be taken than adults. The bear bites cattle on the head, neck and back. Sheep grazing in prime bear habitats may be taken. (D243)
  • Note: bears also eat carrion; finding a bear eating a carcass does not prove the bear killed the animal. (D243)

Carrion

Small mammals

  • Dig small mammals (voles, marmots) out of their burrows. (B392.8.w8)
  • Bears may actively hunt small mammals such as Spermophilus parryi - arctic ground squirrels (Sciuridae - Squirrels, Marmots etc.). Substantial food intakes can result from this. (B406.36.w36)
  • Hunting ground squirrels (Spermophilus undulatus) was most successful in late September and October, when a fresh layer of snow made it easier for the bears to catch the squirrels on the snow surface after forcing them from the burrows; earlier in the year the squirrels generally escaped into rock cover. The bear would remove large rocks and small shrubs from around the mouth of the ground squirrel's hole, usually stick her nose into the hole, then dig, using a single paw and occasional double paw movement. The bear then stretched her leg down into the excavated tunnel with a forepaw, with her head held high. When squirrels leapt out of the tunnel, they were captured by lunging and if necessary chasing and pouncing with the forefeet. (D283.w5)
  • Bears dig for small mammals and may tear up the ground doing this. (B180.w3)

Arthropods

  • Rotting logs are torn up, digging for insects. (B180.w3)
  • Turn over stones to find insects. (B392.8.w8)
  • In central Sweden, ants, which were abundant, formed an important part of the diet. Each time a mound was opened by a bear, the bear ate only a small proportion of the ants (3,000-4,000, probably because they rapidly became more difficult to catch. The bears selected ant species which behaved passively when the ant colony was disturbed and had a high digestible energy but a low formic acid content. additional factors in choice of ants may have been colony size and density. (J30.77.w2)

Caching

  • Food may be cached to reduce the speed of de composition or to hide it from competitors. It is covered with sod or debris; the bear may then lie on or near the cache and may chase or attack intruders. (D243)
    • In areas with abundant food resources, caching has not been observed. (D243)
  • Caching of food items by brown bears has been recognised for a long time and recorded in both Eurasia and North America. In Norway, sheep carcasses were usually cached singly, but occasionally two or three carcasses were found cached within 12 m of one another. Caches were made in various soil types, with large quantities of vegetation and sometimes soil raked over the carcass from the surrounding area. One carcass was cached under water, in a small brook. Usually there was a day bed within the caching area or not far outside it, 2-30 m from the carcass (usually within 5 m). Scats also were generally found near the carcass, indicating that the bear generally stayed near the carcass both while resting and when active. The content of scats indicated that the bears ate considerable amounts of vegetable material at the same time as the carcass. Caching may reduce decomposition and hide the carcass from competitors. (J332.63.w1)

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Authors & Referees

Authors

Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)

Referee

Ellen Dierenfeld (V.w16), Djuro Huber (V.w101), Chuck Schwartz (V.w105)

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