A Chestnut Bear

American Chestnut with Bear feeding

Digging through some old photos I came across this story I would like to share with you.  In preparation for a staff training I was running for Two Coyote Wilderness School a few years ago, I checked on one of my favorite trees in the forest we where occupying for the class.  It is an American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), and this little area has been home to the some of the largest American Chestnuts I know of (a mere 5 or 6 inches in diameter).  My grandfather had pointed one out to me 20 years ago and ever since they have grown, gotten sick and died of the chestnut blight in this tiny spot.  There are many little saplings in the nearby area, though this little patch seems to contain the most successful.

On this day I discovered I was not the only creature in the neighborhood who was interested in this tree.  As can be seen in the photo above something had damaged the tree while it still had leaves (leaves that die early cling to the be branch unlike naturally cast off leaves which, at least for most species, fall off on their own).

american chestnut blight
American Chestnut with bark damage from chestnut blight

american chestnut

There are only three animals I know of that would do this kind of damage to a tree (this assumes it was not weather related which was clearly not the case). One are people and I ruled that out pretty quickly.  Another are porcupines who often devastate trees, cutting their branches and eating the bark.  The branches were not cut and no bark was nibbled.  This left bears.

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Damage to lower limbs caused by a black bear.
american chestnut bear
Claw marks from climbing bear.

Here in New England we have only black bears.  They are known to climb trees and break limbs to get at whatever food the tree provides, often sitting in the tree for some time.

All this is pretty obvious to a seasoned tracker.  What was not so obvious to me is what the bear was actually eating.  I have been led to believe that even a fruiting chestnut does not bare viable nuts.  I have found the spiky husks many times and sometime unopened ones.  Those I have opened contained a withered “nut” that had no real substance to it, certainly nothing to eat worth the trouble.  I have never found a healthy looking nut inside the husk.

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More claw marks.

Below is a photo of bear scat I found very close to the tree.  It seems to contain remains of nut meat.  This area has a great deal of chestnut oak (Quercus montana) acorns (so named for the resemblance of the leaves to an actual chestnut tree though it is indeed and oak), which could account for the nutty scat. And yet still what was the bear eating from the tree?  Fully matured yet infertile nuts?  There were signs of nuts on the branches the bear broke off.  Or was it growing buds?  The tips of most of the branches where intact.

I resist the urge to make the assumption that it was indeed the nuts being consumed until I have proven to myself that they can have nutritional value. I am sure someone has the answer already and I am all ears.

I love these experiences that let me feel both competent and unsure, never running out of things to learn.

Bear scat
Bear scat very nearby chestnut tree.
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