Elusive snowshoe hares – lots of tracks, few sightings

Snowshoe Hare
Snowshoe Hare

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Chel Anderson is a North Shore naturalist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel!

Anderson: Hi!

Well, one of the most common tracks we see in winter snow is the familiar snowshoe hare. So, what are they doing to get ready for spring?

Anderson: They are doing what everything’s doing still, right now, which is just trying to stay alive and that’s increasingly hard at this time of year if you’re a browser in particular. So, something that’s eating the woody vegetation in the case of wintertime. Lots of things are getting buried under the snow that otherwise would be available to you, and you’re eating right along and snowshoe hares don’t travel huge distances in the winter. They’re not, you know, covering huge areas, so they’re working through their available foods, which, at this time of year, like I said, includes, you know, woody vegetation, but not heavy woody vegetation. They can’t be, you know, eating great, big limbs of things, they have to work on small twigs, on buds, on the inner bark of branches of trees that might fall down, you know, in a windstorm or something, or in the case of willows, things like that, that don’t get real heavy branches or stems, they can clip those off and work on the inner bark of those. And, of course, they’ll also eat the needles of conifers, so they’re just trying to stay on top of making sure they get enough to eat and out of sight of predators, which also are on the steady lookout for prey and hares are a very important prey species for many critters: foxes, coyotes, fishers, bobcats, lynx, raptors, owls, goshawks and returning things, things that will be starting to come back early on as winter kind of starts to melt away, new things will be on the lookout for hares. So, hares spend a lot of time this time of year, and really at all times, just kind of resting during the day when they can stay of sight, find a secluded spot and hanging out there. And they’re primarily crepuscular and nocturnal, so they’re feeding mostly at night, and they generally stick to fairly regular routes and areas that they spend different parts of their day in.

My yard.

Anderson: Yeah, and that reminds me that I just feel like the dullest of observers this year, because they have been lots of tracks around where I frequent, you know, trails around our house, and I have yet to actually see a hare this year. And, I just can’t believe how dull-witted I must be to not have been able to pick one out this year.

I don’t know. Earlier in the year, I did see quite a few, but this winter I haven’t really seen that many. I’ve seen tracks, but I haven’t seen them actually.

Anderson: Well, as I said, they are mostly active in the dim light and darkness, so I guess that gives me a little bit of an excuse. But, one thing is that they’re probably aren’t as many around as it seems based on the tracks, because, again, hares are sticking into a fairly small area and they’re very well camouflaged. They do take quite awhile to fully molt and change color, so that’s why sometimes in the spring when the snow goes early we see hares that are looking really obvious because they’re still mostly white and the reverse in the fall. So, it takes about 10 weeks, I think, for the total molt to happen.

I tend to categorize hares, bunnies, and rabbits all together and I shouldn’t do that. These are snowshoe hares.

Anderson: It’s a common thing. These are snowshoe hares, so perfectly, marvelously adapted to our world here, because they have those incredibly long hind legs and huge feet that allow them to literally float on top of the snow. So, I don’t know if you stepped off the trails anywhere when the snow was at its deepest, but around our place it was about 40 inches deep. So, you know, without your own snowshoes of some kind of another, it was not much for good going out there. But, again, when the hare populations are large, they tend to show up, you know, a lot in the summer out eating in the herbaceous vegetation that grows along the roadsides, especially at night, again, because that’s when they’re most active. And, during the time when the first litters are being born, then, you know, there’s a sudden surge in the population.

When is that going to start?

Anderson: Yeah, well, they’ll start in the spring. Here, hares might have two litters over the course of the summer. They’re very prolific breeders. Hares tend to live only about a year, so they have to do a good job on the reproducing side in order to keep their numbers going. And they do have cyclic populations, the reasons for which are not all that well understood, but it’s kind of a 10-year cycle of peaks and valleys, and the predators that they feed have kind of a trailing cycle often that’s associated with the cycle that the hares have.

When you say they’ll start to have litters in spring is it in April? May?

Anderson: Oh, May. June. Yeah. And, I’m not sure where the cycle is supposedly right now. I’m pretty sure it’s not at peak right now, but I don’t know if it’s really down in the valley or if it’s somewhere in the middle. But, there may just be fewer around then there were, say, a few years ago. I’m not really sure, but it’s discouraging to me that I haven’t actually seen one, but I’m going to keep an eye out for them.

Chel Anderson, botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand snowshoe hares.

Anderson: You bet.


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