Watch for snowshoe hares, not rabbits

DON CAMERON @trurodaily Don Cameron is a registered professional forester



SaltWire Network


One of the enjoyable aspects of snow covering the ground in winter is that you can tell what type of animals have been out walking or running around by their distinctive tracks. If you are like many, you may refer to the little floppy eared mammal that hops around the woods during the winter covered in a white coat, as a rabbit. The truth of the matter is that we do not have rabbits native to Nova Scotia in the wild. The quick-moving critter, which is native to our province, is known as a snowshoe hare. One difference between rabbits and hares is that rabbits have young that are born blind, hairless, and helpless in underground burrows. Conversely, young hares are born above ground, fully furred, with their eyes open, and are soon ready to run. Generally, hares have larger ears and bodies than most types of rabbits. The snowshoe hare is also known as the varying hare because its colour changes to provide great camouflage - from grayish-brown in summer, to fully white in winter. The most outstanding feature of the snowshoe hare is that their large hind feet have long toes and stiff hairs that act as ‘nature's snowshoes’ to support them on the snow. This makes their winter tracks easy to see and identify. The hare has evolved so that it is able to stay warm in the winter due to its thick fur coat. It is composed of three layers: the dense, silky slate grey underfur; longer tipped hairs; and the long coarser guard hairs. Although it sleeps during the daytime under the cover of evergreen boughs, dense vegetation, or some other cover, hares are always on the alert for their many predators. Besides being one of the most common forest mammals - it can be found throughout the boreal forest which occurs across Canada and parts of northern United States - some of the outstanding facts about this cuddly-looking bunny are: it can travel up to three metres (10 ft) in one running bound, travel up to 45 km per hour; and can have up to four litters of young each year, which helps explain how their populations can expand to huge numbers, up to 500 600 per square kilometre, over a relatively short time. As proof that the snowshoe hare has evolved to suit its surroundings, it is interesting to note that in the humid coastal areas of southwestern British Columbia, where snow is a rare occurrence, snowshoe hares remain brown throughout the year. Its ears are smaller than that of most hares. The ears help regulate body temperature. Desert hares, for example, have very large ears with almost no fur, so the blood can cool in the slightest breeze. However, because snowshoe hares usually live in cold environments, they do not need such big ears to help lower their body temperatures. Snowshoe hares generally are silent, but when provoked, they show annoyance by snorting. On rare occurrences when they have been caught by a predator, they may utter a high pitched squeal. Many forest types are used by hares for their home habitat. Overall, they prefer forested land with dense young tree growth or layers of regeneration under the main forest canopy. This provides protection from predators and places for food, hiding, and resting. Snowshoe hares usually live within a six-to10-hectare (15 to 25 acre) area. Within this home range, hares establish intricate networks of trails that criss cross its territory. These trails, which take the hares between feeding and resting places, are also well travelled by other animals, such as squirrels, porcupines, and skunks. In fact, the hares keep the trails maintained by periodically clipping off stems and leaves that begin to block the pathways. They must be kept clear as they often make the difference when running from predators. Natural predators include red fox, coyote, mink, fisher, lynx, Great Horned Owl, Northern Goshawk, and humans. Between one and 40 per cent of snowshoe hares survive each year, depending on many factors. Although they can live to six years old, very few survive that long as most do not make it to their third year. The snowshoe hare is the most important small game animal in Canada. They have been a staple for trapping and hunting people for centuries. As a herbivore (plant-eater), that acts as a prey species for many forest animals, the snowshoe hare plays a critical ecological role in the circle of life in the wild.