TUSTIN — Even for Gary Henry, who's used to seeing bears around his property off 200th Avenue in Tustin, this was a little too close for comfort.

Recently, Gary and his wife, Mary, were relaxing in their living room, watching television around 7 p.m., when a surprise visitor showed up in their backyard.

"My wife started screaming," said Gary, who then turned to see an adult black bear approaching their back deck.

While the animal's close proximity was alarming, Gary said this wasn't the first time they'd seen the bear: earlier, they removed a backyard bird feeder when they noticed the bear mauling it to get at the seeds. They placed the feeder just inside the sliding glass door to their back deck ... but the bear wouldn't be deterred.

"I think he could still smell that seed," Gary said. "He started coming closer and closer to the deck. I said, 'I think he's going to come right up on the deck!'"

Sure enough, the bear ambled onto the deck and began sniffing around for the bird seed. He came up to the sliding glass door, where the bird feeder can be seen in a picture Gary took, inches away from the hungry animal.

Living in a wooded area in Osceola County near the Pine River, Gary said they're no strangers to wildlife, including the occasional bear.

When they used to have a pond on their property, Gary said bears would come by and jump right in for a swim. They even used to play with the rubber ducks Gary had placed in the pond — biting them and bringing them down to the bottom of the pond, then releasing them to float back to the surface.

On one occasion, a mother bear sat down at the edge of their property and watched her three cubs playing in the yard. Gary said he was surprised how small the cubs were.

"They were like little kittens," Gary said.

As adorable as bear cubs are, Gary recognized how dangerous the situation could have become if someone were to inadvertently get between the mama bear and her offspring.

Gary said he's never had any close encounters with bears while out on his property but he makes it a habit to carry a pistol just in case.

A bow hunter for 40 years, Gary said he's never even seen a bear while out in the woods. He chalks up the frequency of visits to his house as perhaps the result of being located in a crossing corridor for the animals during the springtime.

The tenacious bear visited them a couple nights in a row but Gary said he hasn't shown up again since he removed the bird feeder.

DNR Wildlife Biologist Vern Richardson said bird seed is packed with calories, which bears can smell from miles away.

"Bears can smell from farther away than we can see," Richardson said. "And they're always hungry ... always looking for food."

Richardson said for the most part, all hibernating bears are awake right now and looking to pack on the pounds in preparation for next winter.

This time of year, there isn't a lot available for bears to eat other than vegetation, which doesn't provide much in the way of calories. As a result, bird feeders are an irresistible attraction.

"They're calories condensed to a solid block," Richardson said. "Most phone calls we get in the spring and early summer involve a bear getting into someone's bird feeder."

Even after a bird feeder is removed, Richardson said a bear can smell the seed for hours and days afterward; and once a bear comes to associate a location with food, they'll check back periodically to see if the food source returns, sometimes for years at a time.

"They have an incredible memory," Richardson said. "Like a person trying out a new restaurant, they remember if they have a good or bad experience. They'll check it less and less frequently if there is no food there each time they come back."

Richardson said anyone who lives outside a city's downtown area runs the risk of attracting bears if they put out a bird feeder. The best thing they can do is wait until fall to put out feeders or at least wait as long as possible into the summer, when other food sources for bears start to become available.

They can also try filling bird feeders with thistle seed, which is smaller and less calorie-dense than other types of bird feed, making it less appealing to bears.

Although many people have been less active during the day as a result of the Stay Home, Stay Safe order, Richardson said he doesn't think this has made bears more brazen or likely to encroach on areas where humans are living. He said they are typically most active at night, when people are less active anyway.

Although bears usually aren't aggressive around humans, he's heard about situations involving dogs that were let out at night to use the bathroom, only to surprise a bear in the backyard and get into a fight. To avoid this scenario, Richardson suggests turning on the house lights and peering outside for a few minutes before letting the dogs out. This may give the bear enough time to gather its cubs, if necessary, and leave the area.

Cadillac News