Wild About Winter: The Snowshoe Hare

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This weekly Wild About Winter feature continues in support of a campaign in partnership with Georgian Bay Wildlife and the Township of Clearview. The information is shared during a weekly segment on Peak FM:

by Andrew Major
The Snowshoe Hare, with the rabbit, were once classified in the same order as rodents, but are now recognized in their own order, Lagomorpha. They live strictly in North America, in heavily wooded and shrubby forests. Their habitat needs to be low canopy to offer the protection they need from predators. They will establish runways throughout the forest that act like hare highways. Throughout the summer months, snowshoe hares will have brown fur, but will shed in the fall to expose long guard hairs that turn it all white, an adaptation to match the climate. This gives hares an advantage to disguise from predators. Next time you are in the forest snowshoeing, scan the snow for similar tracks. They were coined “snowshoe” because their hind feet leave a track identical to a snowshoe. This evolutionary advantage allows the snowshoe hare to travel on top of the snow without sinking.
Hares are dominantly herbivores, with a diet consisting of grasses, plants and bark of many species of trees and bushes, including berry canes. During the winter, hares will strip the bark off apple trees. When hares debark wood, they are browsing the tender cambium layer, which is the layer beneath the tough outer bark, is composed of xylem and phloem, which act like veins of nutrients that support the tree.
They do share the same menu with rodents and white-tailed deer; but they have tell tale signs of how they eat that sets them apart. Rodents have smaller incisors so their debarking is neat and shallow, whereas hares will browse into the cambium and sometimes leave a ripped mess of bark when they make bite marks. Compared to deer, both will browse tips of shrubs and low bushes and canes, hares will leave a neat 45 degree angle bite browse mark at the end of twig or cane whereas deer leave a tip that looks like its be crudely ripped off. So now you know whose eating your spiraeas!
Snowshoe hares lack manners; they poop where they eat. In the winter, you’ll know where hares have been when little round pellets are left beneath a debarked maple sapling. Hares and rabbits will have brown, round pellets, whereas deer will leave oval shaped pellets of the same colour. Hares take their lack of manners to another level, though; they eat their own dung. This procedure is called refection, and involves hares eating a soft form pellet. They do this because their stomach’s fermentation process is not very extensive so by re-eating their faeces, they are taking in more nutrients, thus increasing digestive efficiency and recapturing nutrients. The final product is that hard brown, round pellet lying in the snow.
As the winter relents, male and female hares will start mating courtships. Males, or bucks, get one whole day to make it “count” with a single female, or doe, in a display called “courtship parades”. One female will travel and browse with several males stopping periodically to chase and leap over each other than breed. She will have a litter of up to 13 leverets about 36 days later. Litter sizes differ based on the number of litters in the year. When born, the babies are precocial, which means they have fur and eyes are wide open, unlike rabbit leverets, which are born altricial.
Snowshoe hares have lots of young, probably because they are a food source for so many predators and a long life expectancy is not in their favour, even if they can leap three meters to escape. Some predators include: coyotes, red fox, fisher, long-tailed weasel, Canada lynx, bobcat, hawks and owls, but on occasion, the code of the forest changes and hares will change up their diet and favour protein; they will eat small mammals like voles and mice and will eat the carrion of dead animals including the ones that hunt them. I was told a story once of a pack hares in the Arctic that attacked and predated an Arctic fox; having watched Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail many times, I wasn’t surprised!

Andrew Major lives in Clearview and runs educational wildlife tours through georgianbaywildlife.com. He is also the Birds Canada ambassador for Simcoe County.

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