SLIDESHOW: A sure sign of spring: Black bears seen in Pioneer Valley neighborhoods
But over the past few days, as they’ve watched a mother bear and her three cubs cavorting in their yard on a hillside above JFK Middle School, they’ve come to realize the title is well earned.
“We lived in the Palmer/Ware area for about 30 years,” said Orzechowski, who taught English at Quaboag Regional High School before retiring in 2002. “But I can’t recall ever seeing bears before.”
Their neighbor Larry Rankin, a retired cardiologist and professional photographer, has been following the same bear family through the lens of his camera as they’ve climbed trees and foraged in the grass at the edge of his yard.
After Rankin and his wife, Jean, moved to Bear Hill Estates from Pennsylvania last fall, “we were told we should bring in the bird feeders by the first of April,” he said. “Now we understand why.”
Experts say the black bears are right on schedule.
“They have emerged and they’re out and about,” said Marion Larson, chief of information and education for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s field headquarters in Worcester County. “It’s time to enjoy the show.”
Larson said mothers and their cubs are usually the last to come out of seasonal hibernation. Adult males, whose territory can range more than 120 square miles, wake up first, followed by adolescent bears. Mothers with cubs — who are born weighing less than a pound in mid- to late January — typically exit their dens in mid-April when their offspring are stronger, she said.
Larson wholeheartedly agrees with the advice the Rankins received about bird feeders.
“You don’t need an all-you-can-eat buffet out there to draw the bears — or other wildlife,” she said. “We strongly recommend that any type of food the bears might be interested in should be eliminated from the yard.”
In 2012, Northampton adopted an ordinance making it illegal to feed bears and other wild animals within the city limits. While the regulations don’t ban bird feeders outright, if a feeder becomes too much of a draw for wildlife, the owners must remove it or face fines starting at $100 for a first offense.
The Northampton Police Department has logged five reports of bears since the end of March, including one that disrupted a weekend soccer game April 13 at Leeds School.
Other communities have also experienced sightings. Last month, a 300-pound bear was spotted tearing down bird feeders and rifling through trash cans on Dana Street in Amherst. The town’s animal welfare officer suspects the animal is a regular in neighborhoods along Amity Street and Northampton Road.
Given the frequency of such sightings, Larson said many people may not realize that black bears at one point were a rarity in the region.
“After the area was settled in Colonial times, we cut down more trees,” destroying their habitat, she said. “Especially after the bears discovered livestock made an easy meal, they were not welcome.”
By the 1970s, the statewide population of black bears had shrunk to 100, mainly in the four western counties, Larson said. In recent decades, the bear population has rebounded to more than 4,000 animals who are starting to be seen farther east, including in communities along Route 495 outside of Boston.
Other facts Larson shared about bears:
∎ They are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. An early-spring favorite is skunk cabbage. As the weather warms up, they also seek out insect larvae.
∎ Beekeepers should use permanent or electric fences to safeguard hives. “It’s not the honey they are after,” noted Larson. “It’s the bee larvae they want.”
∎ Bears are most active in the daytime during spring and fall, but more active at dawn and dusk in the summer.
∎ Bears have good eyesight, hearing and an extraordinarily strong sense of smell. They are also excellent climbers, using trees as resting spots or hiding places to protect their young.
∎ The best thing to do when you see a bear is to make noise and otherwise discourage its presence in your yard or neighborhood. “If a bear seems too relaxed and not intimidated by people, that’s not good for the people or for the bears,” Larson said.
As much as he enjoyed photographing the recent ursine visitors to Bear Hill Estates, Rankin said he’d be worried if they decided to stick around.
Still, “we’re the ones who have invaded their habitat,” Rankin said. “We need to respect that.”
Residents who spot bears in highly populated areas can call the state Environmental Police Department’s 24-hour line at 800-632-8075 or MassWildlife at 508-389-6300 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Gazette writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this report.