Summit Outside: Snowshoe hares and their tracks
Ryan Summerlin December 23, 2012
Friends that live up on Boreas Pass Road have a motion camera that videos many creatures that “go bump” in the night by their back deck. Recently its camera revealed a creature that goes “hop” in the night; a furry little visitor with big ears.
It was a snowshoe hare and they are generally pretty illusive and well camouflaged. Few people are lucky to see one as they are mostly out and about at night.
In Colorado, the hare prefers the mountains, or subalpine forest and alpine tundra near treeline. They are most abundant in willow thickets where shrubs are dense, and in windfall areas. This terrain is most typical of many areas in Summit County.
The snowshoe hare ranges from 16-20 inches in length, including a tail of about 1.5-2 inches. Hares are a bit larger than rabbits, and they typically have taller hind legs and longer ears.
I once saw a huge one at the top of a hill when we were checking out trails in the Frisco Peninsula in late fall. It was quite impressive. Unfortunately it disappeared quickly before I could point it out to my companions.
You would know they are around from their scat, which was illustrated in last weeks’ article and their tracks.
The distinguishing characteristic is that their hind footprint is two-and-half times larger than the front with splayed-apart toes to allow them floatation on the snow, hence the name “snowshoe.”
The large hind feet are between 4.6-5.7 inches in length. Their actual footprint is not clearly defined because their feet are very furry, especially the soles, and lacks foot pads.
They tend to hop with paired hind feet, which also make their track distinctive. The hopping stride may be from 3-6 feet.
They follow well-worn forest paths to feed on trees, shrubs, grasses and plants.
Other signs of their presence may be woody plants, which have had the tips of the branches chewed off near the ground or the lower bark stripped off.
Another reason snowshoe hares are hard to spot is that they are well camouflaged and prefer the thick cover of brushy undergrowth.
The snowshoe hare’s soft furry coat is brown in the summer with a blackish mid dorsal line, with off-white flanks and belly.
In the winter, their coat turns white as snow, with the exception of black eyelids and ear tips. The complete change in color takes place over a period of 10 weeks. Changing amounts of daylight and shifts in temperature trigger a hormonal reaction in the animal that causes it to produce different biochromes (pigment in the living cells from which the hair grows).
The fur of animals is like human hair and fingernails – they are actually non-living tissue, therefore the hare has to produce a whole new coat of fur in order to change color.
In addition to background-matching coloration the contrasting coloration is called “disruptive coloration,” a pattern which does not coincide to the contour of the body, and this also serves to conceal them.
They are also extremely fast and agile, and can reach speeds of 30 mph and can jump 12 feet in a single bound.
The snowshoe hare warns others by pounding the ground with its hind feet. When other hares hear this, they freeze and remain absolutely still.
The fact that these animals are nimble and fast is fortunate, because they are a popular meal for many predators such as lynx, fox, coyote and even some birds of prey.
In order to escape from predators, hares have been known to jump into the water and swim. Those large feet serve as “flippers.” They never venture far from where they were born and know every possible hiding spot in their territory: like hollow logs, old burrows and bushes.
Snowshoe hare populations fluctuate cyclically about once a decade, possibly because of disease. These waning and waxing numbers greatly impact the animals that count on hares for food, particularly lynx.
In summer, snowshoe hares feed on plants such as grasses, ferns and leaves. In winter, they eats twigs, the bark from trees and buds from flowers and plants.
They have been known to steal meat from baited traps. Hares are carnivorous depending on the availability of dead animals, and have been known to eat dead rodents such as mice for a protein supplement to their herbivorous diet.
Like most hares (and rabbits), snowshoe hares are prolific breeders and have strange mating behaviors. The phrase “mad as a March hare” first appeared in print in Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale in the late 14th century and in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546. It was based on the antics that medieval Europeans observed in breeding wild hares in March. They would see the hares boxing at other hares, and jumping vertically.
Unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. Males (bucks) compete for the females (does). They kick, bite, hiss, chase and urinate on each other. The buck approaches the doe, touches her nose, and then jumps into the air. She dashes under him and runs away in a zigzag manner. When he’s about to catch her, she jumps in the air, swings around, and then heads in the other direction. The buck spins around to resume the chase. Sometimes the male jumps over the doe, and the hare in the air usually urinates on the one underneath. Several chases and jumps later, and after each has been sprayed with urine, the female is ready to mate.
After mating, the process can start right over again! The male jumps backward, hissing. and sometimes turning around in midair. The female hisses back, and runs right by him, starting another chase.
Their nest is a shallow depression known as a “form” and is found under conifer branches or logs. Females have two or three litters each year, which include from one to eight young per litter.
Rabbits give birth to blind, helpless, hairless babies while newborn hares are covered with fur and are able to move and see. Young hares, called leverets, require little care from their mothers and can survive on their own in a month or less.
Because of its behavior, the hare has been a popular character in fables and legends. The hare in African folk tales is a trickster, and some of the stories about the hare were retold by African slaves in America and are the basis of the Brer Rabbit stories. (Brer is a contraction of “Brother Rabbit.”)
The animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior which people may be forced to emulate in extreme circumstances in order to survive. One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
Probably one of the most well known depictions is the “March Hare” in Lewis Carrols’ classic fables: “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Through the Looking Glass.” The illustration in “Alice in Wonderland” shows him with straw on his head, a common way to depict madness in Victorian time. “Beware the Jabberwock,” warns the hare.
In contrast, among native tribes in eastern Canada the hare is generally regarded as the supreme deity. The Chinese, Japanese and Mexican cultures see a hare in the pattern of dark patches in the moon (“The Hare in the Moon”). The constellation Lepus represents a hare.
Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.