There are lots of opportunities to see brown bears in the wild across Europe, North America and Asia as they are the most widely distributed bears in the world. On a special Eurasian brown bear trip in Europe, there can be no greater thrill than sitting in a hide watching this apex predator at close hand. To enhance your experience, here are a few facts about brown bears that you may not know.
Brown bear physical characteristics
The Eurasian brown bear is a subspecies of brown bear found throughout Europe. They have large heads, wide skulls and thick fur. The colour of their fur ranges widely from greyish white to rich brown to almost black. Eurasian brown bears are large and powerful – the largest individual on record was found in Romania. It was 2.5 metres in length and weighed 481kg.
Photo credit: Discover Danube Delta, Diana Georgescu Romania
In the wild brown bears can live for 20 to 30 years, but the usual lifespan is likely to be around six years. They have poor eyesight but a strong sense of smell and hearing, which they use to avoid most human encounters, which is why a viewing hide is the best option for seeing them on a brown bear tour.
Brown bear behaviour
Aside from mating and when females have cubs, Eurasian brown bears are solitary animals. After reaching sexual maturity between three and six years of age, they mate from May to July. Like some other mammals, including badgers and armadillos, bears practise delayed implantation. This means the egg remains dormant for several months and true pregnancy only begins when hibernation starts in October.
Females give birth in the den and emerge in the spring with a litter of two, three or sometimes four cubs. During this time, female brown bears are extremely protective of the cubs and will often attack males that are much larger than themselves if they stray too close.
Photo credit: More Than Birds
For the first one or two years, the cubs will remain with their mother, but as soon as the female breeds again she will abandon the first litter. The cubs may stay together for several months but they eventually disperse to establish their own territories. If a den site is suitable it may be used by the same bear for future years.
Even in well-populated areas, Eurasian brown bears are not often seen. They are naturally shy animals and tend to avoid confrontation with people. Most bear attacks result from the animal experiencing fear, surprise or feeling threatened, rather than from aggression.
A brown bear rearing up onto its hind legs may look hostile, but this is actually a sign of curiosity and helps the animal assess its surroundings. On most occasions, Eurasian brown bears will immediately retreat after initial contact with a human, but they may also perform a bluff charge to scare away the intruder.
Brown bear diet
Despite being huge animals, the vast majority of a Eurasian brown bear’s diet consists of plants and vegetation. This has happened as a result of human impact –many years ago a brown bear’s diet was dominated by meat, but as their habitat has shrunk this has diminished and so it now forms far less of their overall food intake.
Depending on the region, brown bears will feed on different foods at different times of the year. Their diet tends to contain grasses and shoots in spring, fruits and berries in summer and nuts in the autumn. Insects, roots, carrion and fresh meat are consumed throughout the year.
Photo credit: Fotonatur Slovenia
In the later months of the year, brown bears eat much more as they build up fat reserves for hibernation – consuming sometimes as many as 20,000 calories each day, or roughly the equivalent of 30 kilos of apples.
After emerging from the den in spring at a much lower weight, bears rely on carrion as an important energy source, as well as roots and grasses. They also dig in search of rodents and will regularly cache food in shallow holes.
Brown bear habitat
Historically, Eurasian brown bears were widespread across Europe in large and interconnected areas of woodland. Once forests began to be cleared, populations were cut off and the bears were forced into more remote locations. Now they are mainly limited to mountain woodland habitats situated on steep and rocky landscapes that are more difficult for humans to access.
Eurasian brown bears need a regular supply of food and lots of sheltered places such as caves in which to hibernate and rest during the day. Beech and oak woodlands are particularly beneficial for providing berries and insects. When brown bears hibernate, they often look for den sites that are located on slopes that are concealed under large rocks or amongst tree roots.
Photo credit: Fotonatur Slovenia
The global population of brown bears is vast, which is why the species is listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN. However, in Europe, many groups of Eurasian brown bears are disconnected from these larger populations and this isolation makes them threatened with local extinction.
The clear-cutting of forests is having a detrimental effect on the brown bears’ habitat and creating conflict with humans. New roads are breaking up areas of habitat and collisions with cars are becoming more frequent. Eurasian brown bears face the added threat of hunting – in some areas their gall bladders and bile are sought for traditional medicine.
Charitable foundation EuroNatur is working to rectify some of the damage brought to Eurasian brown bears. They are planting fruit trees to provide more food for the bears and creating ecological corridors to help connect isolated populations together. These conservation efforts are gradually restoring the population of Eurasian brown bears in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain where they have boosted numbers dramatically in the last 15 years.
Places to see brown bears in Europe
While it is thought that Russia is home to more than 100,000 brown bears, there are also around 17,000 brown bears elsewhere in Europe in scattered populations such as Italy and Austria.
Fotonatur Slovenia runs a 7-day ‘Spring Bear and Birding Tour’ in locations including Cold Cave and Lake Cerknica.
The Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain are a particularly good area with 330 brown bears counted in 2018, although numbers typically range from 230 to 300 individuals. More Than Birds run a 1-day brown bear watching trip in the western part of the Cantabrian Mountains where visitors can watch the bears’ natural behaviour using telescopes.
Photo credit: Fotonatur Slovenia
Brown bears can also be seen in Spain as part of Living Doñana’s 12-day ‘Big Six Iberian Wildlife Tour’, which covers a range of habitats across the region.
Elsewhere in Europe, Romania is a popular choice for brown bear watching. Discover Danube Delta runs trips of various lengths: a 1-day ‘St Anna Lake and Bears Watching Trip’, a 4-day ‘Birds and Bears Photography Tour’ and a 7-day ‘Romania Birding, Bears and Bison Watching Tour’. Visitors on this longer trip can hopefully see brown bears during short treks and from the comfort of a hide as the bears come to eat.
What are grizzly bears?
‘Grizzly Bear’ is the name given to brown bears living in North America. Like Eurasian brown bears, grizzlies are a subspecies of a brown bear but are far larger. Despite the popular belief that grizzlies are so named because of their aggression, the name actually comes from their fur – the ends of their hairs being lighter in colour, or grizzled.
Open space is essential for a grizzly bear, as the territory of a single individual can stretch for 600 square miles. Unlike Eurasian brown bears that are predominantly limited to sloped, mountainous woodland, grizzly bears occupy a range of different habitats including prairies, alpine meadows and open tundra.
Photo Credit Joaquin Aranoa from Pixabay
In many places, grizzly bears prefer to be close to rivers and streams in order to hunt salmon. Bears living in coastal areas tend to grow larger than those living inland because of this important food source. In the past, grizzly bears also lived on the central plains of North America, but these populations were hunted to extinction.
While grizzlies are abundant in Canada and Alaska, their numbers in the continental United States reach fewer than a thousand. Hunting and habitat loss has reduced their range but they can be still be found in the Northern Rocky Mountains. It is thought that more than 650 grizzly bears live in The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that spreads across southwest Montana, northwest Wyoming and eastern Idaho.
Rebecca Gibson is a wildlife writer based in the UK. She is currently studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University and uses her blog to share her writing and photography and raise awareness of British wildlife.