|Home||Back||Forward||August 15, 1998: Sounds that bears make and what they could mean|
From Maureen: Chuffs and popping sounds: are these bear vocalizations sounds of aggression?
We have often heard the chuffing sounds our cubs make when something scares them. Now that they are older they have added a loud popping sound to their repertoire of alarmist vocabulary. I have wondered for a long time what the bear is saying with such sounds. When I first started to learn about bears, the chuffing sounds were described to me as signs that the bear was aggressive and thus potentially dangerous. I learned to fear the thought of such a sound, especially when some of the "bear experts" described the "clashing of teeth" that was often included with this alarming symphony of sound.
I have been recording many sounds our cubs make, often a foot from them and plan a "sound drawing" for my art exhibition with a "guess what the sound means" kind of interpretive component. A week ago I was trying to collect the galloping, horse-like thunder of our cubs running to greet Charlie over very hard mud. But it was foggy and they stopped and stood on their hind legs instead, alarmed, as his mysterious shape loomed out of the mist. All three chuffed many times. It sounds like "choo - choo" as they rapidly blow out through their nose and clenched teeth. With the mike inches from her mouth (Purely luck on my part) Biscuit let out a loud popping sound as she slowly lowered to the ground. There was no clashing of teeth involved and the sound which was amplified on my recorder was awesome. The sound came from deep in her lungs as she gathered air to make the sound that quickly came from deep in her throat. It reminded me like some of the whale recordings I have heard. Neither the chuffing or the pop sound had anything to do with aggression. I was standing right beside them and they were afraid of Charlie's shape in the fog. They were considering running away and looked to me as they crowded around my feet, peering into the mist in a similar way that young cubs do around a mother bear!!! I almost giggled as bears also have a habit of sticking out their upper lip when they pout or are afraid. Charlie spoke to them and all was well instantly.
Yesterday on the east beach, I drifted 30' off shore in my kayak, watching the Cocktail Family. Charlie described this lovely mother bear and her three cubs in his last web site entry. We named the Mother; Brandy, and the cubs: Gin, Tonic and Rum. Brandy was very comfortable with my presence as I chatted to her while she fished for sockeye salmon which die after spawning. Her cubs had vanished into the tall grass to eat a recently retrieved fish. She made the popping sound. I surmised she was talking to Gin, Tonic and Rum, telling them she was concerned when they were out of sight. Any thoughts of these sounds occurring because of my presence soon diminished. The cubs bounded out of the grass and she sat down right in front of me to let the trio nurse. She lay back with one hind foot in the air as all three latched on to drink . I spotted our cubs approaching from down the beach. She came to a sitting position with the cubs still hanging on for a last sip as she chuffed at the approach of our cubs. She stood and made the popping sound. She must have decided our cubs were OK as she slowly walked only a few feet into the grass to calmly allow our cubs to walk by. Once again I heard, across the water, the sound of her cubs suckling.
Back in camp that night Charlie and I discussed the "clashing of teeth" component that is supposed to be part of this repertoire. On analysis of my taped recordings we are wondering if the actual teeth clash is more imagined by humans. Not once in any of our many encounters with wilder bears of this area (and many by surprise very close), have we heard the teeth clash. Another myth?? We haven't decided yet.
I am now convinced the chuffing and popping sound is not a sign of aggression. It is a sign of anxiety and often fear. Aggressive sounds could follow. To date this has not happened to us as we always talk to the bears to dispel their anxiety as soon as we see them. We feel strongly that the calm reassuring use of the human voice is the best tool one can use to avoid any conflict. (Of course we also carry Counter Assault red pepper spray as a reassuring back-up.)