It's another late spring here on Anchorage's Hillside. April has passed into May and patches of dirty snow still remain in my yard. Some of the biggest and dirtiest heaps are those on the shaded north side of the house. Besides the various bits of twigs, spruce needles, and dirt that cling to its surface, this backyard snow is sprinkled with sunflower-seed debris: the remains of winter's songbird feasting.
From September through mid-April, I fed daily meals of sunflower seeds to chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, and redpolls more than 500 pounds of seeds in all. Over the months, shells, bits of seed, and unknown quantities of guano were tossed, dropped, and swept off my decks and railings and buried by successive snowfalls. As the snow melts, the debris thickens into a moldy black mass.
I'm tempted to let the snow melt completely so I can more easily rake and bag the debris. But I cannot delay. For the past few weeks, I've regularly skimmed this gunk from the snow piles beside my house. Why? Bears.
By late April or early May, many of the bears that inhabit the Anchorage area have awakened from winter's sleep. After several months of hibernation, they're hungry and on the move. Especially in this lean season, they'll eagerly consume all kinds of food. And high on their list of treats are sunflower seeds. Even 10 years ago, this wasn't so.
State wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott says people never reported that bears were getting into their bird feeders back in 1994. That's when he began handling Anchorage residents' "nuisance bear" complaints. But over the past six years or so, birdseed has become a big problem locally.
Nowadays, birdseed is running neck-and-neck with garbage as a bear attractant, Sinnott says. So, every spring, he and others do their best to spread the word citywide: stop feeding birds in early April, and clean up your mess. Either a lot of people aren't getting the message, or they're ignoring it. Or maybe, they're just being lazy. Already this year, black bears have gotten into dozens of Anchorage bird feeders.
Like many folks who live here, I like the fact that black and grizzly bears wander through Anchorage, occasionally even through my yard. I think it says something positive about our community and our tolerance for wildlife that bears still roam our town without threat of extermination. I want to do what I can to keep it that way and usually consider myself part of the solution, not the problem.
Still, I get careless or lazy sometimes. I make mistakes.
A few years ago I messed up big-time. Early spring, 1999, was a lot like this year's, with cooler-than-normal temperatures and a snowpack that was vanishing slowly. As the snow melted, the seedy morass atop it piled up. I kept holding off, figuring I could wait until all the snow was gone. That would simplify the clean-up.
As April turned to May, though, I worried. Already there had been several bear sightings in town.
On May 7, I decided to wait no longer. Carrying a rake and a shovel, I went out the front door, across the deck, turned to go down the steps to the backyard and stopped in my tracks.
Thirty feet away, a large black bear was sprawled in the seed detritus. He looked big enough to be an adult male, which I guessed him to be. Caught up in his feasting, his head turned away from me, the bear hadn't noticed my approach. He continued to dine as I watched. Every few seconds he would dip his head and grab a mouthful of seeds. It must have seemed like bruin heaven.
I wasn't sure what to do. Then, because he was a black bear (a species known to be timid of humans), and I was close enough to my front door if retreat proved necessary, I clapped my hands and shouted:
"Hey! Get outta here!"
The startled bear seemed to lift off the ground several inches. He landed on his feet and turned toward me, all in one motion. After a moment's hesitation, he bolted for the woods behind the house, stopping only once, briefly, to look back. As this was happening, I noticed a couple of other things about the bear. First, he wore an ear tag; that meant he was one of the Anchorage bears being studied by biologists.
Second, he looked fat, not skinny as you might expect a bear to be after several months of fasting. Maybe my yard was just another stop on his bird-feeder rounds.
I spent the next few hours cleaning up my seed dump, raking it up and hauling it away. The bear returned once more that evening. He approached slowly through the forest, drawn back to what must have seemed to him like a great meal. Again I shouted. Again he retreated, but this time more reluctantly, it seemed.
It's a problem, this hankering that Anchorage bears have for sunflower seeds. It draws bears onto decks and brings them closer to pets and children. The situation may grow worse, as mother bears pass their feeding habits along to their cubs. We can't blame the bears for craving an easy-to-get, high-calorie meal. But humans can become a little more disciplined. We can take down bird feeders earlier, clean messes more quickly.
I can't get to all the seeds, so long as large piles of snow remain. But this spring I'm out there regularly, raking, bagging, and hauling, keeping pace with the gradual meltdown, removing temptation from beside my house.