Exploring my little piece of the planet

Posts tagged “Snowshoe Hare

Canada Lynx

Lynx canadensis

An attempt to cross the highway with its prey was thwarted as we pulled over to take in the rare sight.

“The lynx is named after the luminescence of its eyes which have expanding irises and reflectors that enable them to hunt effectively at night when they are most active.” So says the authors of this site, which also claims, The lynx is used to symbolize the sense of sight or vision and were credited with the particular ability to be able to see through material things as though these objects were translucent”

An Internet search on the word ‘lynx’ returns nearly 42 million hits. The animal appears to be (justly) idolized. It is everywhere a popular choice for commercial and website names. Lynx appears in Greek myths and even early astronomers admired this predator.

The name Lynx never stood for the animal itself. Hevelius, who invented the constellation, said anyone who wanted to study the stars here should have eyes like a lynx.  (Source)

In all the many myths and lore around the lynx, its exceptional vision appears to be its most revered characteristic. One who has the good fortune to have the solitary lynx ‘walk beside’ as their spiritual totem will “…have an uncanny ability to recognize the fears, secrets, agenda and feelings of guilt or remorse that are all but invisible to most other souls.” (Source) As a silent watcher and listener, Lynx will this keep knowledge close and not share it, unless specifically asked.

It is by watching with its keen night vision and by listening with its oversized ears, that the lynx finds and stalks its primary prey, the Snowshoe Hare. Silently padding on its huge, thickly furred feet or waiting in hiding, the lynx will suddenly spring: its long, powerful hind legs carrying its metre-long, 30-pound body a distance of over 6 metres with one bound.

A pronounced facial ruff, very long ear tufts and stubby tail tipped with black identify this as a lynx

Lynx may be hunted by wolves, cougars and coyotes, which also compete with it for food. The lynx, though, has a distinct advantage over its predator enemies in its huge, furred and splayed feet, which ‘float’ over deep snow, taking it into hare habitat much more quickly and efficiently.

Click here for an amazing image of a Canada Lynx in the Yukon by Keith Williams.

Lynx will hunt squirrels and other rodents, birds, especially grouse and even occasionally a young or injured ungulate, but snowshoe hares make up 75% of its diet. Indeed, there is a direct correlation between the 10-year cycle of abundance and decline in hare populations, and numbers and range of lynx.

“The lynx looks as if it is all legs and feet, the feline equivalent of those jacked-up muscle trucks whose huge tires make the vehicle body look puny. Big tires on a four-wheel-drive truck spread the vehicle’s weight over a large area, enabling it to travel over swampy terrain and muskeg where normal vehicles would bog down.” (from Predators: Wild Dogs & Cats by Kevin van Tighem)

Where the hare goes, so will the lynx. Anything that affects the loss of hare habitat (Please see my article on the Snowshoe Hare) will directly influence lynx success as well. Depending almost solely on the population densities of hare, the territorial lynx requires an individual range of 15 – 47 square kilometres (source). It is thought that female lynx may require old-growth forest to shelter and hide her young.

Trapping can also be a threat. In the early days of Canada’s fur trade, the lynx or le pichu (from the Cree peshewa), was nearly wiped out. Numbers hit serious lows again in the mid 1900’s when pelt prices reached $1000. Even though restrictions and quotas have since been implemented to ensure the species’ survival, lynx have been extirpated from the southern-most reaches of their range in the United States. In the region where I live in Alberta, where lynx are caught by leg-hold or kill traps, 6-9 animals (worth about $116 each) can be ‘harvested’ by each registered trapper. Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development department bases the quotas on estimates taken every five years.

It is March and the lynx will be mating. Judging by the number of tracks I have been seeing, it seems to be a good year and possibly a peak year for hares, so a predictably good year for kitten survival once the average of four are born after a two month gestation. About a decade ago I had the pleasure of watching three lynx kittens playing under a shrub by the side of the road. I will likely have only this memory to help me imagine the progeny of this season’s illusive lynx, just as my likelihood of taking better pictures of this magical creature are slim.

I think this is a lynx track, found in highly populated hare territory
Lynx scat – again, unconfirmed, but about the right size and full of white fur

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Snowshoe Hare

Lepus americanus

Usually nocturnal, this Snowshoe Hare seems to have ‘come out’ early to investigate a mysterious scrape by the side of a seldom used gravel road.

Perhaps fittingly as a symbol of dawn, I have not had the pleasure of seeing this nocturnal survivalist in the wintertime apart from the occasional ghostly-white flash of a home-going Snowshoe Hare crossing my path just before the sun has properly risen. For some reason it seems to be active more during the day in the summer, although seeing one is still a rare treat.  In winter though, it is hard to miss evidence of this critter’s busy night-life.

Snowshoe hares travel on well-defined paths, winter and summer.

Its distinctive forked tracks run all over the forest at the edge of town where I take my walks at lunch time. Concentrating in a few specific areas of dense willows and alders with connecting trails between each patch, the night-time activities of this huge-footed grazer are exposed on the surface of the snow.

Statistics collected since the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade in Canada, show that the population density of Snowshoe Hares rise and fall on a ten-year cycle. “The boreal forest is one of the great ecosystems of the earth, and the 10-year snowshoe hare cycle is one of the most striking features of this ecosystem.” (Krebs) In fact, the hare may be considered a keystone species, accounting for many creation myths around the world that feature this inobtrusive animal. In my little patch of the woods there appears to be a thriving population this year. Frequent snowfalls have shown regular and considerable nightly activity.

In summer the Snowshoe Hare will eat quantities (nearly the eqivalent of their own weight) of grasses, forbs and shrubs. Masterfully adapted to areas with deep winter snow, hares survive on the young twigs, bark and buds of deciduous and coniferous shrubs and trees during this long season. Like most herbivores, hares will not turn down a boost of protein from carrion when available, even to cannabalizing the frozen carcasses of their own kind.

Tracks give away a cozy hide-away (known as a ‘form’) under a fallen tree.

Triggered by the change in length of day and without consideration for the presence or absence of snow, the coat of the Snowshoe Hare begins to turn white in the middle of October. Some years there is no significant snowfall until mid-December so, loosing its usual camoflage, the hare is then extra vulnerable.

The Snowshoe Hare is hunted by nearly all predators but only the Canada Lynx equals the hare’s ability to float across the snow with large, splayed, snowshoe feet. (Please see my article on the Canada Lynx for an explanation of the deep connection between these two species.) The Snowshoe Hare is a very fast and cunning runner, and a strong jumper. Exceptional hearing helps it avoid attack.

Locally, nobody calls them ‘hares’ and most think of them as rabbits. Superficially, they do appear similar but hares actually belong to a separate genus: ‘Lepus’, which also includes jackrabbits.  There are many differences. Snowshoe Hares tend to be larger, with larger ears and feet. They are solitary rather than communal. Snowshoe hares do not excavate dens as rabbits do. They take cover under the upturned roots of fallen trees, the burrows of other animals and hollow logs.

Snowshoe hares require dense scrub for protection from weather and enemies like owls. They need young pine and spruce, with its rich inner bark for substance through the winter. Although they manage in muskeg thick with swamp spruce, new woods that grow after forest fires have historically been their prime habitat.

Logging removes mature forests and replaces them with younger stands too. Unlike fire, however, logging rarely creates [hare, thus] lynx habitat. Forest companies scarify the soils of many clearcuts, which encourages grass to grow more than shrubs. They also spray herbicides to hold back willow, poplar and other shrubs Even when young stands of trees become well-established on logged areas, many forest companies return to thin them. ‘Just as it starts to get good,’  says lynx biologist Dr John Weaver, ‘we go back in and thin it out and reduce its value to hares.’” (from – Predators: Wild Dogs & Cats by Kevin van Tighem)

This month, Snowshoe Hares will be in the breeding mood. The phrase “Mad as a March hare” was apparently in use before Lewis Carroll gave it longevity in Alice in Wonderland. I suppose there could be somewhat of a frenzy as the fully polygamous does come into heat this month and will not be ‘ready’ again until a day after their litters are born. Newborn Showshoe Hares are called leverets and mature within 5 months of birth. The female, which is a little larger than the buck, may have up to four litters of 3-5 precocial leverets, the first born in April or May after about a 5-week gestation period.

Epilogue ~

I finished the final draft of this article this morning and decided to go for a walk before I gave it a final read and published it. I wanted to get some photos of the incredibly thick hoar frost that the past five days of ice fog has laid on everything. I found some good, fresh Snowshoe Hare tracks and photographed them…

These are a little overcontrasted to show how the large back feet land in front of the little front feet, which land one in front of the other. Click to enlarge.

…and then this happened!

They do say he’s a trickster!

Just how far can a hare jump? Read this great old Native folktale, The Cunning Hare.

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