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Facts about the snowshoe hare

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By April McCrum,

Whistler Naturalists

The snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) is one of the most common forest mammals in Canada. It can withstand harsh environments and is a very shy mammal.

The snowshoe hare or "varying hare" travels on its large hind feet allowing it to go over snow easily where other animals may sink into the powder. Due to the shortening of days at the beginning of winter, snowshoe hares begin to transfer from their rusty brown colour to white even if there is no snow on the ground, making them visible to predators and naturalists alike.

Their range exists within every province in Canada, in boreal coniferous forests and mountain forests from northern Alaska and Labrador south to California and New Mexico. The hare keeps an extensive trail system, which takes it from feeding and resting places. The trail system is well travelled by the snowshoe hare and other species, such as squirrels and porcupines. They keep these trails well maintained by clipping twigs and branches that are in their path.

Their typical home range is within 6-10 hectares. The hare rarely goes underground in a burrow or den, like the typical rabbit, but prefers places to hide, such as empty logs and brush piles.

The snowshoe hare’s winter diet consists mainly of buds, twigs and bark from willow and alder trees. In the summer the hare likes to eat various grasses, herbaceous plants and shrubs. Depending on the geographic area where they exist, and the local forest type, their diet may be differ. In some cases they will eat carrion from small animals like mice, voles or rabbits, which helps to provide them with protein for extra energy during the winter months. A population crash can naturally occur due to overgrazing. Some plants the snowshoe hare eats will produce a distasteful chemical when there is too much grazing, which can lead to starvation. Once the plants recover, after a season or two, they become edible once again and the snowshoe hare population will increase.

Interesting Facts:

• The hares will clip shrubs from up to 45 cm and higher as the snow depth increases. They neatly clip the shrubs at a 45 degree angle.

• The snowshoe hare travels by bounding, covering up to 3 metres at a time and can go as fast as 45 km/h.

• They can have 3 to 4 litters in one year, with up to 13 young. The first litter is usually born in May and are born fully furred with their eyes open.

• They can live to 6 years old, although rare. Most hares do not make it past their second breeding season.

• At population peaks snowshoe hare densities can be as high as 500-600 per square kilometre and during a population crash they may not exist in that geographic area for years.

• The females are larger than the males.

• Snowshoe hares in the lower mainland do not turn white in the winter.

Upcoming Events:

The Whistler Naturalists are presenting a Whistler Nature Photo Exhibit Feb. 1-28 with pictures being displayed at Village 8 Cinemas as part of ArtWalk. They will also be hosting a Nature Slideshow Exhibit on Thursday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m. at Millennium Place. Admission is by donation for the slideshow, with a suggested donation of $7. The audience will be able to vote for their favourite photographs during the intermission. Both exhibits will feature images of the Whistler Valley and beyond, from both amateur and professional photographers.

Calling all Aspiring Nature Writers – Have an interest in natural history? Want to educate others about your favourite flora and/or fauna? Write your very own Naturespeak article. For more information contact April McCrum at 604-932-0919 or aprilmccrum@yahoo.ca.

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