The Bear Blog with Chris Morgan follows the journey of Chris and his crew during the production of NATURE’s Bears of the Last Frontier, coming in 2011. To learn more about this project, check out the Bear Blog introduction video.
I thought courtship was complicated for people, but not anymore. After watching the brown bears on the coast of Alaska play the game for over a month I’m beginning to think we have it easy.
It’s all about bravado for the boys, and playing hard to get for the girls. Throw in a little bluffing, a copious amount of scent marking, the odd scrap — and the scene becomes all too familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in a pub (well, aside from the scent marking perhaps). Yes, it’s been a busy month for the bears — and for us too. Just trying to keep up with the action has been intense. With base camp just a mile and a half from the main meadow, we’ve had a priceless front row seat, and most of the behavior is new to me. I’ve never seen so many bears all in one place at one time — sometimes there are 15 or 20 on the sedge meadow, or “the love zone” as I’ve named it.
When we first arrived on the scene it all appeared pretty innocent. A mass of bears milling around, and all of them busily grazing sedges. Or were they? Every one of them had a glint in their eye, and something else in mind.
Bears are solitary animals – they have evolved a thousand little tricks and signals to dodge a nasty confrontation, and will do all they can to avoid a brawl. Ear position, head movement, hip swagger, jaw popping, huffing – these are all communication devices for a bear. And now, during the mating season, it pays for every single bear to be fluent in the art of communication. This is no place for a rookie.
A pattern emerged that had me transfixed. The bears would enter the scene over a giant log pile, pausing as if walking into a saloon and assessing the competition. Some bears would scatter (as if hiding behind the bar, or under a table!), while others would quit munching momentarily to size up the newcomer. The biggest males would confidently resume grazing while the intermediary bears would leave the scene quietly, looking over their shoulders and hoping the ladies weren’t watching them retreat.
Pushing through the saloon doors a giant male entered the scene today and every female looked up. I swear I saw one flutter her eyelashes flirtatiously. The big fellow had an air of supreme confidence about him and he immediately busted into some of his best moves, starting with the cowboy swagger. Elvis eat your heart out — the hip gyrations on this guy caught everyone’s attention (I tried to make sure he didn’t see me laugh) including another large male that was already copulating with a female.
Everything would have been fine if the copulating male hadn’t seen his female glance at the handsome newcomer. She let out a growl of pain as he bit her ear in jealous frustration. Sure enough, Elvis clocked the commotion and came shuffling over as fast as his swagger would allow. At one point I felt like herding him over more quickly for fear we might all die of old age before he made it fifty yards across the meadow.
There’s only one thing that makes a bear fellow sexier than the hip swagger and that’s when he urinates all over his feet. Yes, this guy really knew what he was doing. Walking his scent all over the meadow certainly got some attention. Females began powdering their noses left, right and center. Only one thing stood between him and his chosen female — the male that had already claimed her.
Suddenly, the action turned from slow motion to quick draw. In an explosion of power and testosterone the clash of the titans thundered before us. One of the males swung such a forceful left hook that all four paws left the ground for a second. No small feat for a thousand-pound lover. Teeth, claws, saliva, muscle and flying fur — it was like a small bomb went off in the middle of the wilderness. Bears pushed tables aside and quickly placed bets knowing that this would be over in seconds. The female frantically circled the battling males just three feet away like a tiny referee, scoring the fight, psyched at the idea of leaving with the winner. Wads of fur flew, backlit by the evening sun, and then, just ten seconds before the first punch was landed, it was all over. It was as much as either of them could take.
The behemoths separated, exhausted and breathing heavily, standing on all fours just ten feet apart. Slowly, the newcomer turned to walk away, without pausing for a moment to look over his should. In the bear world, only the champ has the confidence to do this. The female fell in behind him and left the scene with her new male.
I finally took a breath and turned to Joe who was filming beside me. “Did you get that?” “Yup,” he replied with a grin.
- Chris Morgan
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