Published on February 6, 2013 by Amy
The snowshoe hare Lepus americanus, or “bush rabbit,” as it is often called, is one of our commonest forest mammals. It is shy and secretive, often undetected in summer, but its distinctive tracks and well-used trails (“runways” or “leads”) become conspicuous with the first snowfall.
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Hares are often called rabbits, and both are members of the family Leporidae. However, hares are born fully furred and with eyes open, while newborn rabbits are blind and hairless. Newborn hares are soon able to hop around and leave the nest, but the helpless baby rabbits do not even open their eyes for 7 to 10 days.
The snowshoe hare, found only in North America, is distributed throughout much of the Boreal Forest. The southern extensions of this forest, along the Appalachian Mountains in the east and the Rocky Mountains in the west, take the snowshoe at least as far south as North Carolina and New Mexico. To the north, it reaches the Arctic Ocean in the willow swales of the Mackenzie River delta.
The snowshoe hare is a medium-sized rabbit. Its feet are long (11-15 cm). With the toes spread apart, and the soles of their feet furry, the snowshoe hare is adapted for traveling in the snow. The snowshoe hare is noted for changing color; in the winter the snowshoe is almost all white, and in the winter the fur color changes to a grayish-brown. The males are smaller than the females which is characteristic of hares and rabbits.
The diet of the snowsow hare is variable, These animals browse on green grasses, forbs, bluegrass, brome, vetches, asters, jewelweed, wild strawberry, pussy-toes, dandelions. clovers, daisies and horsetails. The new growth of trembling aspen, birches and willows is also eaten. During the winter, snowshoe hares forage on buds, twigs, bark, and evergreens.
Snowshoe hares are typically solitary, but they often live at high densities, and individuals share overlapping home ranges. They are active at low light levels and so are most often seen out and about at dawn, dusk, and during the night. They are also active on cloudy days. During the daylight hours, hares spend a great deal of time grooming, and they take fitful naps. During its active period, a hare may cover up to 4 acres of its seven to 18 acre home range. Most activity is restricted to pathways, trampled down “roads” in the vegetation that the animal knows very thorougly.
Snowshoe hares are experts at escaping predators. Young hares often “freeze” in their tracks when they are alerted to the presence of a predator. Presumably, they are attempting to escape notice by being cryptic. Given the hare’s background-matching coloration, this strategy is quite effective. Older hares are more likely to escape predators by fleeing. At top speed, a snowshoe hare can travel up to 27 mile per hour. An adult hare can cover up to 10 feet in a single bound. In addition to high speeds, hares employ skillfull changes in direction and vertical leaps, which may cause a predator to misjudge the exact position of the animal from one moment to the next.
Snowshoe hares have acute hearing, which presumably helps them to identify approaching predators. They are not particularly vocal animals, but may make loud squealing sounds when captured. When engaging in agressive activites, these animals may hiss and snort. Most communication between hares involves thunping the hind feet against the ground.
Hares like to take dust baths. These help to remove ectoparasites from the hare’s fur.
Snowshoe hares are also accomplished swimmers. They occasionally swim across small lakes and rivers, and they have been seen enetering the water in order to avoid predators.
Snowshoe hares are most often found in open fields, fence rows, swamps, riverside thickets, cedar bogs and coniferous lowlands.
Breeding season begins in mid-March and end in August. Hares can have up to four litters in a single season with an average of two to four offspring, although they can have up to eight. The young are born fully furred.