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.
Its distinctive forked tracks run all over theat 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.
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.
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…
…and then this happened!
Just how far can a hare jump? Read this great old Native folktale, The Cunning Hare.
- A Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie. Houghton Mifflin 1975
- Mammals of Alberta by Don Pattie and Chris Fisher. Lone Pine Publishing 1999
- Alberta SRD ‘The Snowshoe Hare’
- Hinterland Who’s Who
- What Drives the 10-Year Cycle of the Snowshoe Hare?
- Corrosion Doctors on Mercury and ‘Mad Hatter’
- The Literature Network – The Cunning Hare