How To Identify A Bear’s Sex

How To Identify A Bear’s Sex - Muley Freak

Introduction On How To Identify A Bear's Sex

Bear or Sow?

Photo By: Untamed Images By JL

Hunting bears is a useful and important part of today's modern society despite narratives against it. Firstly, hunting bears is an important wildlife management tool used to control both bear populations and big game populations in our humanly altered world. Hunting gives wildlife managers flexibility with permit numbers and allows selective harvest of primarily mature males (boars) while leaving females (sows) and cubs to contribute to future generations. Secondly bear hunting has a utilitarian aspect to it. Bear meat is delicious - so delicious it was a marketed meat product in the 19th century. Today bear meat is still just as delicious and enjoyed by thousands of hunters every year. Additionally, bear fat can be rendered into a cooking oil, turning bland meals into a delicacy. Native Americans even used it for sunburns, dry skin, and inflammation.

Listen to Episode 075: Trophy Black Bear Hunting & Identifying a Bear's Sex with Black Shmyr

Speaking of hunting as a management tool, it is extremely important hunters can quickly and effectively identify the sex of a bear before pulling the trigger or sending an arrow. It isn’t easy, unlike other species where males and females possess dramatically different physical characteristics, bears are very similar between the two sexes and difficult to tell apart. Identifying the differences is a learned skill through study and practice. Below are a set of tips and tricks to help you identify those subtle differences and be able to make the call between sow and boar in the field. With these tips and a fair amount of practice, you will be proficient in no time.

How To Identify A Bear Based On Head/Face Shape:

a black bear sow and cub standing on a log by the river

The head and face of a bear can tell you a lot about the sex of the animal. Sows generally have long narrow muzzles with ears sitting directly on top of their head. Boars have short wide muzzles with ears appearing to sit on the sides of their head. A big boar will also have a furrow, or crease in the middle of their forehead as well.

a female black bear standing up on its two hind legs with ears alert looking curious

Just like humans, sometimes physical features can be deceiving with the opposite sex having masculine or feminine features. Bears can sometimes also have deceiving features with a bear's muzzle, ears, and other characteristics not quite matching what we expect of its sex. Physical characteristics are not a perfect science.

One example of this not being exact science is the giant sow Muley Freak Erik shot in Colorado a few years back from our film, “Hat Trick”. A short-muzzled, blocky-headed with a creased forehead bear comes in to feed on and elk carcass in the video. The bear had the features of a boar and Erik believed it was a boar. This sow’s age came back from the Colorado Fish & Game at 25+ years old. She was ancient. It’s important to note sows are legal to harvest as long as they don’t have cubs with them.

The bear had the features of a boar and Erik believed it was a boar. This sow’s age came back from the Colorado Fish & Game at 25+ years old.

We have also seen bears harvested looking like they would be sows but ended up being younger boars. Again, the above information is not a perfect science. 

How To Identify A Bear Based On Body Shape:

a male black boar walking through the forest showing off his big back end and large square shoulders

Another clue to look for is the actual body shape of the bear. Mature boars are thick through their backend and maintain thickness throughout their shoulders and neck. Sows are generally thick through the backend but narrow up in the shoulder and neck area. A lot of bear hunters say sows are shaped like pears, and boars are shaped like blocks. Again, every bear is different and Erik’s Colorado sow was blocky throughout her back end and shoulders - but it is safe to say this is a good reference for most bears.

How To Identify A Bear Based On Pad Size:

Bear Sex ID Tip: Paw pad size

Let's say a bear is hitting your bait and you have it on a trail cam, or perhaps you’ve been glassing a bear up consistently in a basin but still can’t tell for sure what its sex is. One thing you can do is find a pad print you believe to be that bear’s and measure it. According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in a study done where bears were captured and measured, very few if any sows had pads measuring wider than 4 & ½”.

How To Identify A Bear Based On The Time of Year:

There isn’t much to say here but it still needs to be said because it is an important clue for helping a hunter determine a bear’s sex. If you are hunting bears at the very beginning of spring and you see a big bear across the canyon or at your bait, it’s a good chance it’s a boar. Big boars are often the first bears out of their dens in the spring.

How To Identify A Bear Using Trail Cameras:

A bear hunter holds his phone in his hand showing off a trail camera photo of a black bear

Trail cameras can be a lot of work to set up, check, change batteries, and maintain throughout a season, but the results you get from them are totally worth all the work in the end. Not only can you capture some amazing footage of bears being bears you will have for years to come, but the close up pictures and videos can help you identify both maturity and sex of the animal. This is especially valuable when you have a bear tag in hand and are hunting over bait. The goal of most bear hunters is to harvest a mature boar, not a sow. So when a bear comes into the bait and you recognize the colors or markings because you’ve seen it on your trail cameras, instead of making a hasty split second decision based on nerves, you have knowledge from the trail cameras to guide your decision.

When looking over trail camera pictures and videos, here are a few things to look for to identify the sex of a bear:

First and foremost, see if you can see a ball sack or penis sheath as the bear is walking around and digging through your bait. For some reason the sack and penis are more visible and easy to see in night time videos.

Second, look for how they pee. A sow will squat and pee backwards and a boar will pee forwards. We have even seen boars lift one leg like a dog when they pee.

Bear Sex ID Tip: Urination Path

Third, look for cubs. If an adult bear is on trail cam with one or more smaller bears, then it is most likely a sow. That sow may not always bring her cubs into the bait so study what she looks like on video in case she comes in without cubs while you are hunting.

Bear Sex ID Tip: Looking For Cubs

Fourth, look for swollen nipples which is an indication of a nursing sow. Again, a sow with young cubs may not bring them into the bait for safety reasons so the only indication she is a sow might be from prior trail camera videos when she does have her cubs or swollen nipples.

How To Identify A Bear Using Your Optics To Find Clues:

Identifying Bear sex using optics

Spot and stalk hunting bears can present their own challenges to identifying the sex of a bear. Unlike bringing bears in close with bait, there’s a good chance you will spot the bear in your binoculars or spotting scope while being a significant distance away. This makes it very tough to see the intricate clues giving away the sex of a bear. Although you may be at a greater distance from the bear, there still are a number of clues to look for.

First, look for cubs around the bear you have spotted. This may sound obvious, but little cubs can be absolutely tiny like a little puppy, so finding them takes patience. A few years back while hunting some gnarly wilderness country with my cousin Clint, we saw a giant bear sunbathing in the cliffs. We got extremely excited due to the obviousness of its large size. As we closed the distance, we knew it was a good idea to get the glass out one more time to assess the bear and the situation. Not long after glassing her up a second time, we found one tiny little fuzz ball in the grass 50 yards below her. It had been sleeping and when it finally moved we were able to pick it up in our glass. I’m so glad we took our time and didn’t rush to get a shot off.

Second, and as previously mentioned, something you can see from a distance is how they pee. If they squat and pee backwards it's a sow, if they pee forward or lift a leg it’s a boar.

Lastly, and this may not be an indication of sex necessarily, but if the bear has the “big bear walk” it will be a sure indication of maturity. The “big bear walk” is when a bear waddles like a penguin, or oversized dog, and is often pigeon-toed on its front legs due to the bear’s size and weight. You may even see the bear’s fat and skin ripple as it walks through your binoculars or spotter. If a bear is walking like this, you definitely need to get a closer look.

A graphic listing the features of a boar black bear on the left side, and the features of a sow black bear on the right side.

In Conclusion:

Bear hunting is an important tool for conservation despite what you may hear or read. It is extremely important that the majority of bears we harvest are mature boars, so it is paramount that you learn how to decipher a bear’s sex. The more you look over bears the better you will get at determining how a bear’s head shape, body shape, pad size, and behavior can tee you off to what their sex is. Good luck on your next bear hunt and we hope the above information can help you on your next adventure.

Once you've identified a bear to be one that you want to harvest, the next step is knowing a bear's anatomy so you can make a lethal shot. Read here to learn and study the anatomy and proper shot placement for a bear.

Another valuable skill to have while bear hunting is learning about bear shot placement. You can learn how in our latest article below.


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