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While hiking I saw 3 bears, and I have heard a lot of people say ひき to count them. There was a mother and two small ones, if that matters.

But when talking about it I also have been told that 頭 should be used to count bears.

Are both usable? Does it depend on the age of the bear?

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Now I'm wondering about koalas and drop-bears. – Andrew Grimm Sep 13 '11 at 11:29
up vote 6 down vote accepted

頭【とう】 is a counter for what are usually herd animals. Cows, elk, horses, elephants... The four legged thing might also be a factor. You don't necessarily have to see them on a ranch for foodstock purposes, but it's that kind of animal.

ひき is the counter for pretty much every other kind of animal that isn't covered by a more specific counter like , or 羽【わ】 for birds.

A point that arose in the comments below which is important enough to make sure it's seen with this answer:

A key factor seems to be the human relationship to the animal, and whether that animal can be reared, hunted, or exploited in some way. As was pointed out in the comments, can be used for bears if the context is hunters harvesting them. At least one example of this was found, though I suspect this usage is extremely limited in scope.

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So if I reared bears, I could use 頭 to count them? :P – Lukman Aug 23 '11 at 7:01
@Lukman: I know you're joking, but actually, I think yes, that might be true. It would have to be a ranch-style rearing in groups kind of thing, because merely raising bears would be like having cats, and cats are ひき. But, still... a bear farm might use 頭. – Questioner Aug 23 '11 at 7:05
@Dave ah ic, so basically csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/wwwjdic.cgi?1MUE%E5%8C%B9 is misleading after all when they list ひき as "counter for small animals" and 頭 as "counter for large animals" – Pacerier Aug 23 '11 at 8:58
Would be remiss if I didn't mention this page, which include, among other things, a discussion of whether Mickey Mouse should be 一匹, 一頭 or 一人... – Dave Aug 25 '11 at 1:55
I think 頭 can also be used if you are a frequent bear hunter. Though you usually hunt maximum one for a day, you could use it for your monthly count. (DISCLAIMER: I am not encouraging bear poaching. Save them bears! Use them as karate training partners!) – syockit Aug 25 '11 at 7:03

熊 is usually counted with 頭 (とう). A rough pattern is that large animals are counted with 頭, and small animals are with 匹 (ひき), although this is by no means a firm rule.

I have never heard of using 頭 for herd animals and 匹 for non-herd animals.

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That was what I thought...I can't say as I'm not a native speaker, but it sounds like using 匹 for a bear is somehow cute-ifying it. "Ohhh, look at the little bear! She's so furry!" Never mind it can take your head off your shoulders with one fuzzy paw... – silvermaple Dec 19 '11 at 5:09

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