With giant feet, spring-loaded legs, and a coat that changes colors with the season, these furry mammals seem supremely adapted to winter survival. But most hares still end up as meals for such predators as lynx and raptors. Only their incredible reproduction rate saves them from elimination.
[Nowhere to Hide] Rather than burrowing underground or building nests like rabbits, snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) live out in the open, using hollow logs, depressions, and brush thickets for shelter. Larger and faster than rabbits, hares can be distinguished by longer hind legs, wider feet, and taller ears. In addition, their young (called leverets) are born fully furred, with open eyes, and can hop within hours.
[White Wash] During the summer, hares' rust-brown fur blends with the forest undergrowth. But as autumn approaches, the decreasing daylight activates the growth of insulating, all-white guard hairs. At the end of their ten-week molt, hares are completely white except for faint black marks rimming their ears.
[Snow Machines] Hares float easily atop deep snow using their 6-inch-long hind feet and stiff-furred soles. Their V-shaped tracks point in the opposite direction of movement. When they hop, their larger hind feet touch down in front of (but chronologically after) their smaller forefeet. To escape predators, hares can bolt at up to 27 miles per hour. During winter, they move along distinct trails called "runways." Good swimmers, they will occasionally seek safety in water.
[Short Lives] Be glad you're not a hare: 85 percent of them die within their first year. Predators include Canadian lynx (which rely on hares for 75 percent of their diet) and northern goshawks. Hare populations rise and fall in cycles, peaking every nine to 11 years. When hare populations decline, lynx numbers also drop, and goshawks alter their migrations.
[Forest Forager] Find snowshoe hares in spruce-fir forests with dense undergrowth of softwoods and bushes–a habitat that provides both concealment and food. During winter, hares eat the twigs, buds, and bark from aspen, spruce, willow, and alder. Though they often live in high densities, hares are quite solitary. Their overlapping ranges encompass 5 to 10 acres each, and a hare will use the same rock or log (called a "form") for shelter throughout the year.
[Rapid Delivery] Hares breed like, well, rabbits. A short gestation period (36 days) helps them overcome their high mortality rate. Starting in mid-April, female hares (called does) give birth to three to five litters per year, with between two and eight leverets per litter. Hares become sexually mature after one year, and wean their young after just four weeks.
Good Hare Day
Two snowshoeing and hiking trails where hoppers abound
Deschutes National Forest, OR
From the Swampy Lakes Sno-Park, follow the left fork of Tangent Loop a half-mile northeast to the cut-off for the Nordeen Loop. Turn right and take this loop trail 4.9 miles to the Nordeen Shelter and back to the cut-off. From Bend, drive 16 miles southwest on OR 46 to the sno-park ($3 vehicle fee). (541) 383-4000; fs.fed.us/r6/centraloregon
George Washington National Forest, VA
From the Lost Woman trailhead, follow the Jackson River east on the Hidden Valley Trail, cross a bridge at 3.2 miles, and return via the Rock Shelter Trail for 5.6 total miles. From Warm Springs, drive west on US 39 for 1.5 miles and turn right onto VA 621 (McGuffin Rd.) for 1 mile. Follow Hidden Valley Rd. 1.8 miles to the trailhead. (540) 839-2521; fs.fed.us/r8/gwj