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How Do Bears Sleep All Winter?

Mary Holland
Finn from Hinesburg wants to know how bears sleep all winter? Female black bears give birth to cubs like these while in hibernation, but are in a shallow enough sleep to care for their cubs.

In our very first episode, we’ve got owls and turtles and bears, oh my! It’s all about animals.

But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids is a show led by you. Kids ask questions and we find someone who can give you an answer. And that way all the rest of us listening get to learn something cool!

How do bears sleep all winter? — Finn, 4, Hinesburg, Vt.
Credit Courtesy of Finn's mom
Finn is 4 years old and lives in Hinesburg, Vermont. He wants to know how bears sleep all winter?

Our answer comes from naturalist Mary Holland. Her book is called, Naturally Curious.

"Black bears sleep all winter because they can sort of shut their bodies down. In late summer, before they go to sleep, they go on an eating binge. They eat, and eat and eat, lots and lots of plants and fruits and insects. They get fatter and fatter and fatter. Sometimes they even double their weight!

"When they get all big and fat, they find a den to sleep in. Sometimes it’s under a root or in the snow under a broken branch or sometimes they even sleep out in the open under evergreen trees.

"They slow down their bodies. Their hearts beat much slower. They breathe much less frequently. They take a breath almost every minute, much slower than normal.

"Once they go into hibernation they don’t eat, they don’t drink, they don’t pee and they don’t poop. They’re in hibernation four or five months, sometimes even longer. They have a plug in their butt that keeps them from going to the bathroom. When they wake up, in spring the plug comes out naturally and they start eating again."

Credit Mary Holland
Mary Holland is the author of "Naturally Curious." She joins us to answer Finn's question about how bears sleep all winter.

"While they are sleeping, they are using up their fat. Those cells break down and provide them with water and calories. They also break down some of their muscle and organ tissues and those turn into protein to keep the bear alive.

"Black bears sleep all winter because they can sort of shut their bodies down." — Mary Holland

"Female black bears give birth in January to tiny little cubs, two to five of them.

"They are not completely asleep, their sleep is quite shallow so that when the baby cubs need to nurse the mother wakes up and arranges herself so that the babies can get her milk. When the baby cubs nap, the mothers nap.

"The babies weigh about half a pound and are seven inches long when they are born, when the mother comes out of hibernation in April, the babies look like miniature adults. They can walk or climb, and eat some food, like green vegetation, but they are not completely weaned."

Mary Holland, naturalist and author of Naturally Curious

Listen to the full episode to learn about some other species that hibernate in winter: bats, woodchucks, frogs and insects that can freeze solid.

We’ll also meet a barred owl name Chapin, who is cared for by Outreach for Earth Stewardship in Shelburne, Vermont. This episode features coloring pages by Lauren Turmel. Download and print Hibernating Bear and "Om Nom" Bear. You can color as you listen!

Credit Melody Bodette / VPR
This barred owl, named Chapin, was injured and cannot live in the wild. She is cared for by the non-profit Outreach for Earth Stewardship in Shelburne, Vermont.

About the coloring page artist: Lauren Turmel is a mixed media artist living in Vermont. Her work is greatly inspired by flora, fauna, color, and the imaginations of young children. To see more of her work, visit laureneturmel.com.


Read the full transcript


Barred owl calls in this episode are thanks to the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can learn more about birds at their website allaboutbirds.org.