GROTON -- As the summer season progresses, along with it have the number of bear sightings; moreso this year than in the past as the large animals grow in population and accustom themselves to the ways of human beings.
Moving farther afield seeking to establish their own territories, the bears more often of late find themselves running into inhabited areas and in such rural communities as Townsend and Groton they have almost become a common sight.
Attracted by the easy pickings of exposed trash barrels, compost piles, pet foods, and especially bird feeders loaded with crunchy food, the New England black bear has been spotted in backyards all over the Nashoba Valley and even as far as Brookline.
It should have come as no surprise to the Truex family when their home was recently visited by a nighttime intruder who turned out to be a large, hungry bear.
"It was about 5 a.m. in the morning when we heard a crash outside," recounted Michele Truex. "We looked out the windows and, seeing something in the backyard, wondered, 'Is it a bear?' Then we looked out the bathroom window and, sure enough, by one of our bird feeders, there it was. We watched it for about a half hour. It took the bird feeder and had it in his mouth. It was one of those squirrel-proof feeders and he had it in his mouth and was just sitting there. It took the feeder in its paws and ripped it in two and was patiently eating away. Clearly, it saw us looking out and just kind of looked at us
Although the Truex family had been aware of the increasing presence of bears in the area, finding one in their own backyard was still a somewhat unsettling experience.
"We've had other bear sightings in the neighborhood," said Truex, referring to a mother and her cubs sighted by Pepperell resident Nan Quintin in the same neighborhood last May. "When I saw the pictures that (Quintin) had taken, I realized that the bears were probably on our property. And when I compared her pictures to ours, the adult bear did look to be the same as the one we saw. Ours didn't have as much gray on its muzzle though. On the other hand, animals in the wild look mangy but this one that we saw was well groomed. He was gorgeous in fact. Beautiful."
For most homeowners however, encountering such a large animal in the neighborhood can be disturbing and when a bear is actually spotted in their own backyard, frightening. When such events occur, state wildlife officials and local animal officers advise people to just leave the bear alone until it tires and wanders off or if it lingers, to make loud noises like banging pots together to frighten it off. By no means, it is warned, should the animals be approached.
According to Animal Control Officer Tom Delaney, so far this year, bears have been sighted along Old Dunstable Road, Chicopee Row, and in West Groton, as well as Route 40 or Lowell Road where the Truex's live.
Although the black bear may not be the largest in the bear family, it is by no means a small creature. The male can generally range in weight from 130 to 600 pounds and the female from 100 to 400 pounds. In Massachusetts, males have been averaging 230 pounds. Lengths range from 3.5 to 6 feet and shoulder height from 2.5 to 3.5 feet.
Truex guessed that the bear that visited her family on the night of July 3 was a good sized one weighing between 180 to 200 pounds.
Black bears are easy to recognize being large-bodied and shaggy-haired with small eyes, rounded ears, and a short tail. As their name implies, they are typically colored black all over and sometimes sport a white patch of fur on their chest. At times however, they can also appear in brown or other shades depending on the season. Their feet are large and well padded, with moderately-sized curved claws.
In recent years conservation efforts have been successful so that the bear population in Massachusetts has grown from about 100 in the early 1970s to about 3,000 in 2005.
Aside from the incident with Quintin last May, Truex said she has not heard of any other bear visitations in her neighborhood this year.
"There was an incident a number of years ago where a bear might have gotten up into a tree and ripped down a big, heavy bird feeder we had," said Truex. "That time, we only saw some claw marks on the tree and assumed it was a bear. Once we figured there was a bear in the neighborhood, we took the bird feeders down. This was the first year since then that we tried the feeder again. But though it was very special to see that bear in our backyard, we do have two kids and a dog and the reality is that it's still a dangerous animal."
Animal control officials such as Delaney recommend that when a bear is sighted, people just leave them alone until they get tired and wander off. But if they feel a need to drive them away, loud noise such as that made by striking pots together can be effective. The Truex's however, tried a method of their own, one with uncertain results.
"My husband, Dave, came out of the garage armed with lacrosse balls and threw them at the bear to try and scare him away," said Truex. "The bear didn't seem too concerned. He just looked at my husband confusedly and finally turned quietly and went back into the woods. It didn't seem fearful of us at all!"
But despite the animal's seeming harmlessness, Truex knows that appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to animals in the wild.
"I've told the kids that if they're out in the backyard and see a bear, they should back away slowly while facing him," said Truex, whose sons, Avery, 11, and Aren, 8, were on hand to see their father try and scare off the one that visited them last week.
"It was very special," said Truex of seeing the bear in her backyard. "But I would never approach it or anything. I'd much rather see it from the upstairs bathroom window than out walking with my dog!"