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Every so often while writing a column I’ll get the urge to take my own advice. I mentioned the 2012 bear baiting season (which opens next week) a few weeks ago and that week I began getting calls from local farmers who were having trouble with bruins in the corn. Like most wild animals black bears have a knack for knowing when the crop-of-the-day is ready for picking, and their timing is impeccable: Plan on picking corn, apples or green beans tomorrow morning and tonight the critters will come in and gobble up a few bushels of the best specimens.
Such is the case with corn right now. I can imagine the fun fest that goes on each night in secluded corners of farmers’ fields – it’s got to be shoulder-to-shoulder with deer, which nip the silky tassels off the top of the ears); raccoons, which knock over individual plants and rip through the husks to ravage about half of each cob; porcupines, which walk right up the plant and nibble on every part of it; and the bears, which knock over several rows leaving alien-like “crop circles” all through the patch. May as well add in the coyotes, which have the odd habit of chewing whole stalks down and then making a nice pile of them nearby.
I enjoy seeing all these signs of wildlife activity and every so often will put up a trail camera to record some of the nocturnal visitors. I have some images of deer, coyotes and raccoons all feasting on corn at the same time. Some images show a lot of eerie-looking eyes reflected in the camera’s flash. I can’t tell what they are but from the height and width of the orbs I can guess that they are deer, bears, raccoons and skunks.
A longtime hunter and always a fan of fauna, I have to make an effort to be there when the action takes place just to see, which means several sleepless August nights on the agenda. Years ago, before tree stands, blinds and trail cameras were invented, I would scout out the trails and access paths the animals were using and then build a ground blind out of logs, rocks and brush. I’d try to use the wind to my advantage so that animals coming to the corn wouldn’t notice my set-up.
It was usually entertaining, sometimes scary and always educational to be out there after dark hearing things scuffling around in the woods, breaking branches, swishing saplings and then snapping and cracking corn stalks in the field – all within 20 yards of my position!
Believe it or not, it’s possible to hear these animals breathing, snapping their teeth, growling and groaning as they filled themselves with ripe corn. The deer were nearly silent as they nipped the tassels off the tops of the ears, but the raccoons were quite noisy as they knocked the stalks over and dragged them back into the woods to eat. Several times I had family groups of raccoons within 10 feet of me, all ripping and tearing at the stalks and husks, having a fine time gnawing down the farmer’s profit margin.
But the bears . . . now those were hair-raising moments for sure! A long-time student of black bears, I always remind myself (and anyone else who will listen) that black bears have, statistically, killed more people than grizzly bears. And, bears are quite territorial when it comes to food, especially late in fall when they are trying to prepare themselves for hibernation. The usual routine is that the smaller bears will come to the food first, and then the sows with cubs, and finally the big, old boars who don’t want anything to do with any other bears. I can always tell when the big boys are on their way; the sudden, wild thrashing within the cornfield tells me the younger, smaller bears are leaving what’s left to the mature, grumpy males.
This is a moment of pure angst for everyone involved. The sudden quiet means the raccoons, deer and younger bears have vacated the field, but it also means that the larger bears are checking it out for signs of danger – meaning ME! I can only sit and wait, straining to hear every sound and hoping that the biggest, most belligerent and intolerant bruin doesn’t decide to boot me out of the area, too.
The silence is unbearable because I know that there are all kinds of creatures out there, all around me, not moving, waiting to see what kind of mood the big boars are in.
After a long, silent wait I’ll hear a twig crack here, a faint crush of leaves on the ground over there, and then that unique, raspy sound of something moving through the corn stalks in the field. Suddenly there will be a cacophony of stalks snapping, grunting, tooth-gnashing and (believe it or not) burping and gurgling as the bears start filling their stomachs with corn. A contented bear feeding in a cornfield does not sound much different than a pig at the trough – lots of enthusiastic noise, gobbling and slurping.
Every so often the field will go silent as a vehicle goes by in the distance or a branch snaps in the woods nearby. Always alert and vigilant, even the largest bears will run when danger threatens – it’s how they get to be big in the first place.
I have spent many an entertaining nocturnal hour tucked away near a late-August cornfield, orchard or berry patch and I can say that it is exciting, unnerving and somewhat frightening but also extremely interesting. Our biggest wild animals are very busy during the hours of darkness, and the damage they can do to ready-to-pick crops is phenomenal.
If you aren’t up for what’s become known as traditional bear baiting (the labor- and dollar-intensive pastry-and-honey thing), consult with a local farmer, orchardist or bee-keeper.
From now till mid-October every form of commercial crop out there will be at risk till the food runs out. Be on hand at dawn and dusk and enjoy some old-fashioned bear hunting – the natural way.
If you plan to stay out all night just to listen, don’t bring any food with you or have any food smells on you: A bear will be attracted to the lingering aroma of pizza, hamburger or fries like a starving teenager on a Friday night.
Sitting next to a bear-ravaged corn field in the dark sounds crazy, I know, but it’s definitely more exciting than watching stale re-runs on TV!
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