Klemek Outdoors Column: Snowshoe Hare
While spending some time in the woods recently, fresh new snowfall everywhere, animal tracks were abundant—deer, fisher, bobcat, weasel, ruffed grouse, and even mice and voles. But what was especially abundant were the tracks of snowshoe hare. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered so much sign of this interesting species.
Snowshoe hares are hares of the forest. Locally abundant some years, not so numerous other years, snowshoe hares experience population booms and busts. Over the past few weeks while deer hunting in Kittson and Hubbard counties, I was amazed at the amount of snowshoe hare sign in the snow. Nearly everywhere I went I encountered tracks and droppings.
Snowshoe hares, mostly white in color by late November, are difficult to spot in a snowy environment, but I did observe several nonetheless. Some that I saw were not quite white yet. Tones of splotched gray-brown color, along with their mostly white coats, stood out whenever I flushed one from dense forest cover. Snowshoe hares typically flush when startled, yet they will usually only bound a few short hops before stopping to watch you walk by. Often as it is, you can then spot their coal-black eye, which seems to always stand out once one spots a hare.
Unlike cottontail rabbits, which are born hairless and helpless, snowshoe hares (and jackrabbits, too, which are also hares) are born with a full fur coat and are able to leave the nest only a few hours after birth. Hares, therefore, are precocial. How or why this developed in the species’ evolution is a mystery.
Snowshoe hares rely on a couple of defenses when outsmarting predators. Running, leaping, and zigzagging as they go are obvious maneuvers, but what often works best is to simply remain still and not move a muscle. Whether it's summer or winter, seeing a motionless hare is surprisingly difficult even when you know they're there. Add to this, snowshoe hares (and jackrabbits, too) turn completely white in the wintertime.
Even so, when remaining motionless won't do the trick to evade a would-be predator or other dangers, running often will. Snowshoe hares can run over 30 mph in short spurts while relying heavily on the knowledge of its home range, various runways, and their ability to run on top of soft snow. Snowshoe hares can also leap over 12 feet!
Along with these defenses, hares have extremely acute vision and hearing. With large and bulging eyes set on the sides of their heads, these animals can see danger in a near 360-degree range. And those long ears? They serve as noise amplifiers that intensify sounds of approaching danger. Long ears also help to dissipate body heat during hot summer days.
Snowshoe hares are strict vegetarians. Foraging on a wide variety of plant materials including most parts of green plants, seeds, shrubs and bark, snowshoe hares also indulge in a very unusual feeding behavior called coprophagy—the practice of eating their own droppings. This species (as well as all members of the rabbit and hare family) have the exceptional ability to select the most nutritional of their pellets and recycle these important nutrients and intestinal bacteria.
On one of my recent outings in a nearby forest, I observed a bobcat slowly making its way through a patch of hazel brush. The bobcat appeared to be hunting, as each and every step was carefully placed while its eyes and head appeared to be fixated on only one direction—straight ahead.
With its erect ears and apparent one-minded purpose, I soon watched the wild cat disappear into the thicket and then over the ridge. Seconds later I saw a snowshoe hare running from the same patch of hazel brush, but in the opposite direction that the bobcat was going. The hare made a large, semi-circle before suddenly stopping and not moving. While I half expected to see a trailing bobcat in hot pursuit, I never saw the cat again. And so by all accounts it appeared that the hare was the winner that time.
The chances are very good that snowshoe hares (or cottontails or jackrabbits, too) live close to your home or are not far away. Snowshoe hares, interesting looking as they are—long ears, long back legs, twitching noses, and coats that change from brown to white—are fascinating Minnesota mammals of the forest as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.