4 Sounds and Noises Bears Make (and What Each Means)

Written by Hannah Crawford
Published: December 9, 2023
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Communication is such a powerful tool that we have. Yes, as humans, we will use words to display what we wish to say. However, have you ever heard someone make a verbal noise, and you knew exactly what they meant without them saying a word?

Perhaps your wife walks past the trashcan and scoffs. This means she’s upset you didn’t take the trash out. Or maybe someone is holding a baby cooing as you softly run your hand across their plump cheeks. These vocalizations are well known to us, and we don’t always need words to interpret what they mean. 

Well, bears are no different with the sounds that they make. They cannot use words, and so we have to rely on our understanding of what their vocalizations mean. Unlike what Hollywood wants us to believe from the movies, bears are not always aggressive and out to chase you through the woods and eat you alive. Let’s look at four frequent vocalizations that bears use daily. 

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A sleuth, or group, of three American black bears (Ursus americanus), a mother bear and two of her cubs, sit in a rocky field.

Bears are omnivore eaters that feast on leaves, fruits, nuts, and rodents.

©Derek R. Audette/Shutterstock.com

One of the common things we think of when bears come to mind is how protective mother bears are over their cubs. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission states, “​​Bears are relatively quiet creatures, but will occasionally make sounds to communicate: Cubs bawl and moan when distressed, and make a grunting purr sound when suckling. Females communicate with their young by grunts or moans to send their cubs up trees for safety or have them follow her.” Listen to the video below to spot what these grunts sound like. 

Mother bears will use a series of grunting sounds, as we hear in the video above, to tell their cubs that danger is near and to quickly get to a safe place. The bond that mama bears have with their cubs is second to none. This is why they have coined the phrase “mama bear,” which we often refer to as a human mother who will do anything for her child. 

Bears must protect themselves and their cubs against predators like foxes, wolves, and wildcats. Sometimes, they even have to worry about male bears. 

Jaw-Popping and Huffing

Two brown bears fighting

Male bears will fight each other over mating rights with females.

©Erik Mandre/Shutterstock.com

Okay, this is the one you were probably waiting for. Jaw-popping and huffing are the sounds a bear makes when they feel threatened by other predators or people. The National Park Service quotes “Grizzly bears sometimes vocalize when agitated or nervous. These sounds of huffing, jaw-popping.” Let’s watch two bears go at it in the video below and use the sounds of huffing and jaw-popping. 

In the video posted above, we can hear that this huffing sound is almost like a repetitive pulse as the bears continue to get more agitated with one another. When the bear is flustered or nervous when a nearby predator is nearby, their huffing and jaw-popping will only increase until they feel the threat is neutralized or they are no longer in danger. 

Low Growl

Black bear getting into household garbage on garbage day

When bears smell food, they often enter urban areas in search of it.

©Tom Middleton/Shutterstock.com

Low growls are warnings that you’re too close.” There could be various situations where this might come up. Perhaps you startled the bear by running into them in your backyard, or you get out of your car to get a close-up picture of the bear on the side of the road, or you find yourself walking through an area where the bear is resting. Never approach a bear, even if they seem docile.  

“If you hear them while you’re out in the park, back away calmly (never run), leave the immediate area, and give the bear more space.” This advice comes to us from the NPS (National Park Service), and it’s important to remember that if a bear feels threatened, either by their own life or by their cubs, they will attack. Below, we will hear the sounds of a low growl that serves as a warning for people who are getting too close. 

The North American black bear can run over 30 miles per hour. So, running from bears is not an option. Many people feel that getting into the highest tree is the best action. However, this is also not a good idea because bears can climb trees. Let’s look at a great example of climbing trees for bear cubs when they are in distress. 

Bear Cub In Distress

Adorable tiny wild black bear cub laying on a large dead tree

A bear cub will drink their mother’s milk for the first 5-6 months of their life.

©Susan Kehoe/Shutterstock.com

As absolutely adorable as bear cubs can be when we see them in the wild, leave them alone. We cannot put enough stress on this. Where there are bear cubs, a mother bear is bound to be nearby. 

The North American Bear Center states that this cry “is a distress sound made by a fearful cub. This sound is commonly made when a cub is separated from its mother.” Listen to the distressed bear cub crying out for his mother below.

Now, let’s say you were to come across a bear cub in the wild with no mother in sight and crying in distress. Is it okay then to help this cub? A very resounding no! The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation warns us to avoid them at all costs. “Black bears often “tree” their cubs when they perceive a threat. While the cubs are in the trees, the mother bear will leave and circle back periodically to check on the cubs.”

Now, let’s make sure we can identify these four sounds. That way if we are out hiking or camping we can be knowledgeable about what they mean and what we need to do to ensure our safety, as well as that of the bear. 

Summary of the 4  Sounds and Noises Bears Make

#1GruntsMother bear communicating with cubs\ concerned for safety
#2Jaw-Popping \ HuffingBear is agitated or nervous
#3Low GrowlPredators or humans are getting too close
#4Bear Cub in DistressThe bear cub is separated from its mother and is fearful

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Hannah Crawford is a writer at A-Z Animals where she focuses on reptiles, mammals, and locations in Africa. Hannah has been researching and writing about animals and various countries for over eight years. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Communication\Performance Studies from Pensacola Christian College, which she earned in 2015. Hannah is a resident in Florida, and enjoys theatre, poetry, and growing her fish tank.

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