Another Excerpt from Frances Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp–The Florida Bear

Okefenokee black bear headed for a den in a hollow log.

I’ve been periodically posting excerpts from an obscure book published almost 100 years ago by Frances Harper, an accomplished naturalist.  In his account of the black bear he gives the incorrect scientific name, Euarctos floridanus.  The modern accepted scientific name for the black bear is Ursus americanus.  His collection of accounts of the black bear is the longest of any animal in the book, indicating this was an important large animal for the settlers living here.  Due to the length, I’m skipping some parts of this chapter.  I’m leaving out the debate over whether there were 1 or 2 species of bears living in the Okefenokee.  The majority opinion among the settlers then held that there were 2 species, but the scientific community is now certain there is just 1 species.  The confusion stemmed from the wide variation in coat color and size among different individual bears, leading most to think there was more than 1 species living in the swamp.  I’m also skipping over the last 6 pages of the account which focuses on the experiences of humans hunting bears.  But I will here mention some of the more interesting accounts from that section.  Harper notes that there were no known unprovoked attacks on humans by black bears, but they were dangerous to hunt.  Hunters generally used shotguns filled with buck shot, and they hunted in early summer when the bears were easy to find while they foraged for turtle eggs.  On one occasion some bear hounds chased a bear up a tree.  The men weren’t around so 2 woman shot the bear and it fell to the ground.  However,  the women were too timid to get up close for a killing shot, like the men would have done, and the bear killed every last bear hound.  On another occasion a man took his 10 year old son with him on a bear hunt.  They both shot the bear, but the bear charged the boy and the man shot the bruin in the jaw, just barely saving his son from a severe mauling and possibly death.  Some of the old timer hunters tallied a large number of lifetime bear kills.  Obadiah Barber killed the most with a lifetime tally of 150.  Below is the excerpt from Frances Harper’s book.

Florida Bear

Habitat–There is apparently no type of habitat in the Okefinokee which the bear does not frequent.  The hammocks and the prairie ‘houses’ are perhaps its favorite feeding grounds, though it wanders freely over the piney woods and the prairies, and makes nocturnal forays for hogs to the very dooryards of the island dwellers.  But the cypress bays are its breeding haunt and its almost invariable refuge in time of danger.  In the tangled fastnesses of the bays and the sphagnous bogs it can fairly defy the hunter’s pursuit, unless pressed close and brought to bay by some well trained and courageous hounds.  John Hopkins once saw a Bear swimming across Billy’s Lake, and one may frequently ascertain, by the trail through the bordering vegetation, where one has crossed the canal.

Individual Range–Regarding the range of the individuals, Allen Chesser offered the following testimony.  About 20 years ago there was a Bear about Chesser’s Island that had killed altogether 50 or 75 hogs.  One day it was pursued but made its escape.  About the next day William Barnett, while fishing in one of the lakes on the western side of the swamp, shot the fattest Bear he had ever killed.  Its fatness indicated that it had been eating hogs; and it was considered the marauder from Chesser’s Island, for it molested the hogs no more.

Numbers–There is a general and apparently well-founded opinion to the effect that Bears have been getting much scarcer during the past few years, though some of the estimates are still surprisingly high.  In 1917 Jackson Lee said that it sometimes appears, from the abundance of ‘sign,’ as if there must be 200 or 300 bears in the swamp, but at other times they seem very scarce.  More recently, Walter Davis has said, ‘There must be a thousand.’  Sam Mizell, who in his surveying work has covered perhaps more territory in the Okefinokee than any other man, estimates one Bear per square mile, making a total of over 600 for the swamp.  In some years he sees none; in other years, three or four.  He sees the ‘sign’ nearly every day, wherever it is not too thick, too open, or too boggy.  He can not account for the discrepency between the probable annual increase accruing from 600 bears, and the dozen or so that are killed each year on the average, but he suggests slow breeding and occasional death from natural causes.  Julian Godwin estimates the number present at a thousand, and the average number killed during the course of a year at ten, suggesting that the normal annual increase is offset by ‘migration to Florida.’  As a matter of fact, it is difficult to account for the presence of even 200 Bears in the swamp. Of this number probably at least one-half would be breeding age, or more than three and one-half years old.  If each breeding female averages two young every other year, the average annual increase would be about 50.  The same number must be lost each year if accured by hunters, while another dozen die of wounds, leaving about 25 others accounted for by accident, snake bite, disease, possible migration, or other natural causes.  In the summer of 1922 we could learn of only three or four that had been taken by hunters in the entire region during the previous twelve months.  The extension of lumbering operations to the heart of the swamp and the enormous increase in the human population during the late years have undoubtedly had their effect.

Size–The size attained by individuals is indicated in some hunter’s accounts.  Allen Chesser spoke of having killed an extra fat Bear that must have weighed 400 pounds.  J.D. Hendrix spoke of another 400-pounder.  David Lee estimated the weight of the largest dead Bear he had ever seen at 500-600 pounds.  Hamp Mizell also referred to Bears of equally great weight.

Encounters and Observations–Various details in regard to the Bear’s haunts and habits will be brought out in the following chronological account of observations and experiences relating to the species.

On May 10, 1913, two of the swamp hunters were harnessed up to a boat which they were hauling on a set of wooden wheels through the low pine lands of Honey Island.  Meanwhile their dogs started up a Bear, which happened to take a course in their direction.  One of the hunters began to extricate himself from the harness in order to reach the guns on the boat.  The other, however, plunged away in panic without pausing to unharness himself, and dragged the large boat after him at such a rate that when it collided with a pine trunk the bow was so badly smashed as to necessitate the rebuilding of the entire boat.  At about the same time the Bear, in perhaps equal alarm and haste, passed directly by them.  Several days later, at this spot, I saw for myself the wrecked boat.

Early on the morning of May 18, 1912, David Lee, while paddling along the north fork of the canal, noted the fresh trail of a Bear engaged in digging up turtle eggs on the banks, and presently obtained a clear view of the animal at a distance of about 15 yards.  When he began emptying the contents of a revolver into the Bear, it jumped into the canal, but scrambled on to the bank again, and made off into the swamp, but not before most of the six shots had reached their mark.  A little later several of us followed the trail for some distance where it tore through the thick bushes of the swamp, but desisted when it gave no evidence of coming to an end.

In january, 1917, Harrison Lee and I followed a well-used Bear trail for a considerable distance through a canebrake near the south end of Floyd’s Island.  Certain trees beside the trail had been much gnawed and scratched by the animals.  I also noticed a rotten log in Floyd’s Island hammock that had been torn to pieces by a Bear.  During the same month, along the run through Billy’s Bay and also on the west fork of the canal, Jackson Lee pointed out a trail coming to the edge of the watercourse, and perhaps crossing it.  Along the banks of the canal he called attention to the dead tops of numerous sweet bays (Persea pubescens) that had been broken off by Bears while climbing the trees to feed upon the berries.

In 1921 Floyd and Black Jack Islands and the banks of the canal appeared to be particularly favorable places.  Along the canal in early June we saw their tracks and paths on the banks, noted where they had left a trail in the bordering aquatic vegetation in crossing from one side to the other, and found numerous places where they had scooped turtle eggs out of the soft earth.  While paddling along the canal late in the afternoon of June 1, several of us, hearing a sound on the bank, dimly made out the form of a Bear as it moved about and stirred the bushes, in dense thicket about 60 feet away.  Probably the animal took alarm at about this time, for complete silence ensued, and a little later we located the trail where it had leisurely set off across the prairie for a neighboring cypress ‘head.”

On June 10 Jackson Lee pointed out Bear Trails among maiden cane on Floyd’s Island Prairie.  During the next few days we found numerous signs on Floyd’s Island–trails, gnawed trees, scratchings on the ground, logs torn apart, grass pressed down where the animals had lain or rolled, broken tops of huckleberry bushes, and excrement that was purple with these berries.  These signs were especially noticeable among magnolias and canebrakes in the hammock part of the island, but some were found in the pine barrens as well.  Twice within a few days some of the Lees heard a Bear at close range as it tramped through the brush in the hammock. 

On July 28, in walking through the pine barrens of Black Jack Island, we came across a recent Bear trail every now and then. On July 7, 1922, in company with Ben and Tom Chesser, we gained an idea of the Bear’s manner of living on the Grand Prairie.  At this season it was still in search of turtle eggs, and was wandering from ‘house’ to ‘house’ across the the prairie for that purpose.  When either a boat or a Bear passes over a watery prairie, the ‘bonnet’ (Castalia) leaves in the trail remain upturned on one side for hours afterward.  The upturned side of the leaf indicates the direction from which the boar or animal has come.  One such trail that we came across had evidently been made within a couple hours.  On one of the small prairie houses the ground had been much torn up by excavations of turtle eggs.  A little to one side, in a fairly thick, brushy place on high, dry ground, was the Bear’s bed, with the dead leaves pressed down.  In another ‘house’ were gnawings on sweet bay, some of them were fresh. 

On August 29, in the edge of the prairie near Chesser’s Island, Tom Chesser followed a trail to an ants’ nest, which had been robbed so recently that the ants were still scurrying about.  During the ensuing week, which I spent in the midst of Grand Prairie, I noticed no fresh Bear signs.  By this time the turtle-egg season was probably largely past, and the animals may have been resorting more to the islands than in the prairies.

Meanwhile a couple of bears began making depredations on the hogs on Chesser’s Island, killing several within a few days.  At first a Bear came at night into the hammock close to one of the dwellings, caught a 60 pound hog, and dragged it off into the nearby cypress bay, while the victim kept squealing and bracing its feet to hold back as the marks in the ground revealed the next morning.  Some of the men were aroused by the outcry, and had reached the edge of the bay in pursuit, when they heard the Bear finally dispatch the hog about 75 yards within the bay.  Though several hunts were organized during the next few days, the Bears not only escaped, but boldly continued their nocturnal forays at intervals for weeks thereafter, and inflicted considerable losses among the hogs.

Tree-gnawing–One may find in the Okefinokee plentiful evidence of the Bear’s habit of gnawing and clawing trees.  Along the canal pine saplings were noticed that had been so maltreated as to have grown very crooked or to have been nearly killed.  Along a Bear trail near the south end of Floyd’s Island certain trees, including ‘red bay” (Gordonia lasianthus) and a magnolia, were much gnawed and scratched.  In a ‘house’ on Grand Prairie, on July 7, there were gnawings on a ‘sweet bay’ some of them thought by Tom and Ben Chesser to have been made that very day.  These marks were generally about 5 feet above the ground, and in one case perhaps a foot still higher.  Some of the old hunters are reported to have seen  the bear do the gnawing by reaching over its shoulder while rubbing its back against the tree.  Jackson Lee remarked concerning a ‘blazed’ pine on Floyd’s Island that a Bear would soon be scratching there.  This is in line with my observations in northern Alberta, where trees that had been ‘blazed’ seemed especially apt to be scratched by  Bears.

Food–Various notes wree secured on the food of these animals.  Mention has already been made of their digging in the ground for buried eggs of turtles or ‘cooters.’  They resort to the banks of the canal and to the prairie ‘houses’ more particularly in May, June, and July because of the abundance of eggs to be found there at that season.  In June we also noticed scratchings in the ground in the pine barrens of Floyd’s Island.  Though at a considerable distance from water, these were made in search of turtle eggs, according to David Lee.  He added that where a Bear once scratches for these eggs, other ‘cooters’ come to lay in the loosened earth.  Harry Chesser told of a way in which to distinguish the work of a Coon from that of a Bear digging up eggs.  The former makes only a little hole, two or three inches in diameter, whereas the latter makes a broad scoop with its paw to uncover the whole complement.

Allen Chesser states that the Bear eats Alligator eggs and also ants, such as are found plentifully in the tussocks of vegetation on the prairies.  Another source of food supply is indicated in his finding the stings of yellow jackets within the Bear’s nostrils.  Harrison Lee once found evidence that a Bear had dug out a yellow jacket’s nest at the base of a dead live oak on Floyd’s Island.

David Lee lists the following items in the Bear’s diet; white ants or wood lice; all kinds of bugs living in rotten wood (he once found two quarts of adventitious wood in a Bear’s stomach); turtle eggs, wild bees’ honey, the larvae and honey of ground nesting bumblebees; bullaces (muscadine grapes); berries of Smilax, saw palmetto, sweet tops of sweet Bays which he noticed along the canal in the winter of 1916-1917, he said that the Bear breaks the branches sometimes with its mere weight, and sometiimes by pulling on them.  Along the canal as well as on Floyd ‘sI sland we found the tops of huckleberry bushes broken off by Bears.  Ben Chesser speaks of high bush gallberries (Ilex coriaca) as a favorite food of the bear.  In August, when the bullace ripens, the animals are found feeding on this luscious fruit in favored situations, such as the banks of canals.

The swamp residents always figure on a certain loss of hogs from the depredations of Bears, and relate numerous tales in this connection.  In the old days, however, according to jackson Lee, Bears did not molest Hogs nearly as much as present.  Newton Roddenberry has known them to take Hogs out of a pen.  He once killed in 0 Bay a Bear which had carried a (~300 pound) hog about half a mile.  Allen Chesser spoke of having sat up many a night about his fields , waiting for a certain marauding Bear to catch a hog.

In 1912 all the Lee’s hogs were of the ‘piney woods’ or ‘razor back’ variety.  Within the next four years, however, they gave these up in favor of the black Essex breed.  One advanatage of the change, they said, was that, whereas the razorbacks would spend the night out in the woods where they fed during the day, the others were in the habit of returning from the woods to spend the night in the vicinity of the house, where they were less liable to attack from Bears.  On Chesser’s Island, on the other hand, the razorbacks are accustomed to pass the night near the house, but are not safe from the Bears even there.

Enemies–The species apparently has few formidable enemies save man.  Yet an occasional hog may prove no mean antagonist.  Once John Hopkins found a dead Bear and a large dead hog within 30 feet of each other near Bugaboo Island, and the possibility of the two animals having engaged in a mortal combat suggested itself to him.  Many years ago, along the Altamaha River, a vicious old hog belonging to his grandfather came in one day all bloody and torn.  When dogs were put on its back trail, they came to a dead Bear, which the hog had ‘tushed’ and disembowled.  But the hog died too.

Since the Otters are considered to be in fear of alligators, it seems that Bear cubs, in crossing the prairies or watercourses, might  likewise be in danger from this source.  The numbers of deadly snakes in the swamp might constitute another dangers, provided the Bear is not immune to their poison, or unless its keen senses enabled it to avoid them.  Yet I have heard no reports concerning any of these potential enemies.

Hibernation–So far as known, there is no hibernation in this region.  David Lee has noticed places grown with gallberries where Bears have fed throughout the winter.

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