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Snowshoe (Varying) Hare

(Lepus americanus)

Description

The snowshoe hare takes its name from its well-furred feet which allow it to hop across deep snow.  Snowshoe hare have large hind feet; both front and hind feet are heavily furred in winter.  Also called the "varying hare", the snowshoe's coat changes color with the seasons. During the summer, hares are colored rusty brown with black on the upper surface of the tail and ear tips and grayish white on the underside of the tail and belly. In the late autumn though; the hares begin to molt their summer coat, replacing it with white fur. This process lasts about 10 weeks, with the white fur appearing first on the ears and feet and moves towards the body until the molt is complete. Then is spring, this winter coat is again replaced by brown fur in a reverse process.  Their droppings or "scat" look like slightly flattened brown pellets.

Snowshoes are relatively small animals, about midway is size between cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits. Adults measure 15-20 inches in length and weigh 2-4 pounds. Male hares usually weigh about 10 percent more than females.

Snowshoe hares are equipped with long ears to gather sounds, giving them an acute sense of hearing. Also, their front feet are quite strong and are specialized for gnawing on tree bark and woody twigs. The sensitive nose and long whiskers of the hares allow them to feed at night, and their large hind feet enable them to stand upright to reach branches while feeding.

The snowshoe's tracks are similar to those of the cottontail, but are larger and the toes appear spread. Also, because the feet are well furred, the tracks often appear indistinct. The tracks made by the hind and front feet are often less than 12 inches apart, although they can be spaced more than five or six feet when the animal is running.

Reproduction

Snowshoe hares begin breeding in early March and continue through August. During mating, male hares purse the females, leading them in zig-zag chase through the woods. Each male mates with several females and the female hare can produce two to five litters per year.

After a gestation period of 36 days, the female snowshoe gives birth to 3 or 4 young. No nest is actually constructed, although she may give birth in a packed down area or "form" in sheltered spot under bushes, grass, shrubs or a fallen tree. The young hares are precocial, fully covered with soft downy fur. They weigh; about 2 1/2 - ounces and their eyes are open. Soon after birth, the young hares begin to hop around and, they are quite active after about one week.

When they are ten days old, the young snowshoes begin nibbling on grass, although they are not weaned until they are a month old. They grow quickly and reach their adult size by about five months. Snowshoe hares breed during the spring following their birth. However, mortality is high for the young hares and only about 30 percent of them reach one year of age. Those survivors will live for about 2 years on the average.

Food

The snowshoe's diet changes with the seasons. During the summer, hares forage on green vegetation including grasses, clover, dandelions and raspberry and blackberry shoots. In the winter, when fresh vegetation is unavailable, snowshoes feed on buds, twigs and bark of woody plants like aspen, willow, birch, maple, sumac, and alder. They also prefer the needles of conifers, including fir; cedar; hemlock, spruce, and white pine.

Snowshoe hares sometimes damage forests by destroying young trees and new forest growth. They especially affect conifer plantations and nurseries, where high densities of young trees occur. However, in natural forest areas, the hares can actually be beneficial as they thin young stands and allow surviving trees better growing conditions. In any case, the damage done by hares is usually far outweighed by the many benefits of the species -- both as game animal and as a valuable part of our state's ecosystem.

Habits and Habitat

Snowshoe hares inhabit mainly the northern third of Wisconsin, preferring conifer forests with areas if dense understory. Conifer lowland forests and young aspen stands are especially good hare habitat. They also frequently inhabit spruce and cedar swamps, as long as the water levels remain low. Snowshoe hares rarely leave wooded areas.

During the day, hares rest in the "forms", often hiding in low gravling vegetation or even inside hollow logs or abandoned animal burrows. They feed at night, with peak feeding occurring around 11:00 p.m. While foraging, the animals often follow paths or "runways" which are worn into the vegetation. These runways can be quite obvious in areas of high hare densities. Another sign of the presents of snowshoes is a dust bath, where small groups of hares may gather to groom.

Hares are not highly social. During the breeding season, pregnant females drive off intruding males and male hares may actually fight each other by biting and clawing. The home range of female snowshoes average three to four acres, while males travel greater distances, covering the home areas of several females.

Snowshoe hares represent important food for bobcats and are preyed on by a large number of animals, including coyotes, foxes, weasels, great horned owls, and some of the larger hawks. Also, accidents involving cars and forest and brush fires can result in hare mortality. Young snowshoes often die as a result of continued wet or cold weather.

In addition, parasites like ticks, lice, tapeworms, and lung worms can infect hares. Tularemia, a disease which is transmissible to humans, can affect snowshoes. People can avoid getting the disease by thoroughly cooking all snowshoe meat and by making sure not to clean or handle hares when they have cuts or abrasions on their hands.

The snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) is a medium-sized rabbit. Its name comes from the fact that the animal's hind feet are very long and the toes can be spread out to act like snowshoes. These large feet also have fur on the soles which protects from the cold and increases traction.

Over most of this rabbit's range, the color of its coat varies seasonally. Its summer pelage is rusty, grayish brown. During the winter its coat is white, except for the eyelids and tips of the ears. The snowshoe hare's other common name, varying hare, derives from this changing coat color.

Today, the snowshoe hare is found in northern and higher elevation areas of North America. However, the bones of this animal have been found in several Midwestern paleontological sites. These finds indicate that the snowshoe hare's range included much of the Midwestern U.S.  during the last glaciation.

The presence of animals like the snowshoe hare in the southern portion of the Midwestern U.S. during the last glaciation provides evidence that the climate was cooler at that time. Particularly, it indicates that the summers were probably significantly cooler than the area experiences now.

The snowshoe hare is a very fast breeder. The mating season starts in March and continues until September. The gestation period, the time the young develop inside their mother's body, is 35 days. Two to eight young called 'leverets' are born. The average litter contains four leverets. Each leveret weighs 57 g, has a full coat of fur, and has its eyes open. Within a day or two, they can hop around their nest which is called a 'form'. The form is not really a nest in the usual sense of the word. It is just a hidden place where there is a hollow in heavy bushes or grasses. The leverets are born onto the bare ground. The leverets stop taking milk from their mother after three or four weeks. They are fully grown in six or seven weeks. Female snowshoe hares can mate during the same day that a litter is born. They can have four litters a season. The young rabbits of one season can mate and have their own young in the spring following their birth.

Snowshoe hares stay in a small area that scientists call a home range. This is only about 1.6 to 4.8 hectares, the size of three to ten football fields. The size of the home range is smaller if there is a better food supply and more to eat. Their home ranges usually overlap.

The number of snowshoe hares is not controlled by their predators. The enemies of the snowshoe hare include wolves, coyotes, foxes, lynx, bobcats, hawks, and owls.

Because snowshoe hares have so many young, their population goes through a cycle every nine to ten years. During the top of the cycle, there are many, many hares. Then, at the bottom of the cycle, there are fewer and fewer. For example, in some areas of Northern Ontario, at their peak in numbers, there can be 3500 snowshoe hares per square hectare. Then they crash in numbers. Starvation, disease and enemies kill so many that there are only about 50 left. During the peak in numbers, the hares cannot find enough to eat, so they become weak. They are easily caught by predators. When there are few hares, their enemies either go to another area or they die off too. Then the whole cycle starts over again. The food sources grow back and the number of snowshoe hares rises again.








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