Winter is approaching and many animals have to adapt to survive. Some can migrate, but many stay. For those that do hang around, they need to either hunt for prey or try not to be dinner for a predator!
Hares and rabbits fall into the latter group. Who doesn’t love a rabbit, part of the family of mammals called Lagomorphs. In Ontario, we have four members of this family (i.e. Eastern Cottontail, Snowshoe Hare, European Hare and Arctic Hare).
One of my favourite animals growing up was the Snowshoe or Varying Hare (Lepus americanus). Truly a master of disguise, it changes from its soft brown summer pelage (fur) to a snow white winter coat, where only the eyes and the tip of the ears are black. This is essential, for it is a major prey species for many predators, from Great Horned Owls to wolves, bobcats, lynx, fishers, foxes and coyotes.
Surprisingly common in our boreal forest, as witnessed by their network of trails and distinctive tracks in the snow, they are seldom seen, as they are very secretive and wary. As medium-sized animals, they weigh about 1.2 – 1.6 kg, and they can talk! The females ‘talk’ to their young, by making an interesting clicking sound, to call them to dinner. Bucks and does (males and females) also chat with each other, using a similar sound. However, most of their communication is achieved by thumping their hind feet on the ground, and they also make a snorting sound when annoyed. Other than that, they’re mostly silent, except when caught or frightened, when they will utter a high-pitched squeal that sometimes causes a predator to drop them.
Snowshoe hares start breeding in their second year, sometime around mid-March. The female can have up to 4 litters per season, which is important, as their mortality rate is very high. The first litter, of 3-4 young, is born in May, after a gestation period of 35-36 days. Later litters tend to have slightly more offspring. Precocial at birth, they are born furred and with open eyes, unlike rabbits that are naked and blind at birth and need care after being born.
By the age of 3-4 weeks, young hares can forage on their own and find enough food to survive without mom’s help.
Big hind feet help them stay on top of the snow, and three types of hair (silky underfur, long insulating fur and coarse guard hairs) allow them to withstand extreme winter temperatures. The change in colour, from the brown of summer to the white of winter, is gradual and is brought about by moulting the outer guard hairs, to reveal the appropriate seasonal colour. This camouflage works extremely well and provides protection in all seasons. Surprisingly, in warmer zones, such as B.C., they don’t moult but keep their brown coat all year. Small ears also help reduce heat loss.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.