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Warm weather affected habits of animals, leaving some wandering

January 21, 2007|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

To see a bear rummaging throughout the countryside would be normal if it weren't happening in January.

Most bears enter hibernation by mid-December, but officials from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said the department has since been getting calls about bear sightings in Western Maryland.

They say warm temperatures are to blame.

"Bears are food-dependent, not weather-dependent," said Harry Spiker, head of the DNR's Black Bear Project, which monitors the state's bear population. "But because it's warmer, there's a fair amount of food available, and they're not having to burn a lot of energy to stay warm."

Spiker said DNR officials were still tallying the number of bear sightings in Western Maryland and were unable to provide an exact figure.

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Spiker said there are roughly 550 bears in the state. He said most of them live west of Frederick County, and most of the bear sightings occurred in Allegany and Garrett counties.

Officials were still trying to determine whether there were any sightings in Washington County. In Washington County, Spiker said bears are most likely to be seen near Hancock.

Bears weren't the only animals out during the warm spell.

"I don't know what Punxsutawney Phil's doing because he can probably see his shadow right now," said Jeff Semler, agricultural and natural resources extension educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

Groundhogs, rabbits and mice are able to forage in the grass, Semler said.

The visibility of mice and other small animals is good news for birds of prey, as there's no snow cover in which the animals can hide, Semler said.

David Curson, director of bird conservation for the Audubon Society of Maryland-Washington, D.C., said the warmer weather has thrown off migration patterns for birds.

Curson said birds that typically stop through Washington County on their way south in November didn't show up until late December this year.

"Purple finches just started arriving," Curson said earlier this month.

Semler recalled seeing flocks of geese earlier this month.

"Normally you wouldn't see flocks flying south and I saw two this morning," Semler said a couple of weeks ago.

The change in animal habits might affect humans.

Because of the weather, Semler said deer are prolonging their grazing habits.

Deer are "browsers" during the winter, eating whatever they can find. But the warmer weather is allowing them to graze longer, Semler said.

This means deer might nibble at a farmer's crop of small grains in order to graze.

"Farmers usually account for this in warmer months, but it shouldn't cause substantial damage," Semler said.

The warmer weather allowed mice to forage longer, which meant a cold snap - like the recent cold spell - might send them seeking shelter in people's garages and basements. Semler said this would have happened months ago during a typical winter.

Bears faced the most risk, as the warm weather increased the likelihood that they would be hit by a car or shot, Spiker said.

"Bears are always looking for an easy meal. Bird feeders and trash are always an attraction," he said. "If you live in a rural area near bears, rethink putting out the feeder."

Semler said as temperatures have begun to fall, more bears have likely entered hibernation.

In the event of a bear sighting, call DNR at 301-842-2702.

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