The many years I lived as caretaker at Birch Creek Ranch, I rarely saw a Snowshoe Hare. I looked for their tracks in winter, and noted the rise and fall of cycles in the population. Occasionally, while driving the six and a half miles of dirt road out from the ranch, one would dart across the road, or I would glimpse a hare in the forest, nibbling on something tasty.
When the cabin in which I now live was being built, the crew told me they often saw hares in the area – in and around the clearing. I was heartened by this, for this was one animal I wanted to know better.
I moved into the cabin in July of 2016, and discovered plenty of hare sign in the forest around the cabin. The forest is dense, with a thick mat of lichens and small-leafed plants carpeting the forest floor. It’s rich with berries and mushrooms in the fall. I noted that there was a family of Ruffed Grouse in the area, and saw them frequently. Curiously, Spruce Grouse were scarcer. It was the opposite, out at the Ranch.
When Freeze-Up came, I put up bird feeders. A family of Nuthatches was already in residence. Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees began coming to the feeders in slowly growing numbers. The birds spilled seeds on the ground, which the resident squirrels happily took away to cache.
When the snow arrived, I began seeing hare tracks all over the area. To my surprise, I discovered that the hares liked sunflower seeds as well, and there was evidence one or more would sit under the feeders sometime in the night and eat seeds. My compost pile was near one of the feeding stations, and there were a few carrot chunks in the pile. I thought the hares would go for these, but the carrots remained untouched. So did any lettuce parts I added to the pile. The hares seemed only interested in the sunflower seeds.
As winter progressed and the snow deepened, the hares began arriving at different times and I finally got to see them. There were two, for sure, for when I took photos of them, I could tell them apart by size and body shape. They were both in their pure-white winter coats of thick, warm fur. Their huge feet, which gives the species their name, seemed out of proportion to their bodies, but propelled them over the snow without sinking in, helping them escape predators. I had seen Red Fox in the area, and had heard a Great Horned Owl calling one night, so I knew the hares had predators around.
Because my two dogs are shepherds, they don’t instinctively chase things. And I also work with them as puppies to “look, don’t chase”, so they are well-versed in quietly watching wildlife. The hares gradually learned that they had nothing to fear from either me or my dogs, and they began to appear in the day time. Then one would stay, eating seeds, while I came out onto the porch to fill feeders there. Eventually a hare would stay, crouched beneath a feeder, eating seeds and watching me while I walked quietly by, going to the outhouse. The hare would still be there when I returned. The hare would even come out of the forest while the dogs and I were out on the porch. I was delighted, for now I could take photos outside, without having to deal with double-pane glass from inside the cabin.
As spring approached, the hares gradually began to change color. Subtle, at first, just a faint patch of gray on the cheeks and nose, and a few dark hairs along the body. Then it seemed to accelerate, with the patches getting bigger. I took many photos and videos, and to my surprise I had- not two- but six hares coming to eat seeds! Comparing photos, I saw that there were two large hares, which I thought might be bucks, three medium-sized, and one rather small hare. Very rarely did more than one hare arrive at a time. If this happened, the one arriving displaced the one eating, and it left, slowly hopping back into the forest. Usually each hare stayed an average of ten minutes, always on high alert, ears moving to catch every sound. I had over two hundred Red Polls coming to the seeds, and-at the peak-sixty-four Pine Grosbeaks. Whenever the flock of birds took wing, which was often, the feeding hare would ‘freeze’, eyes wide, and wait for the birds to return to the seeds in a few moments. But sometimes the flock took wing in a more alarming manner and then the hare would take off, its great hind legs digging into the snow as it pivoted and sprang in the same motion, leaping away into the forest. I took a few videos of such retreats and slowed down the footage to study the motion of the hare. They are truly graceful animals, and capable of making turns, jumps and leaps at blinding speed.
As their coats continued to change into summer-brown, I was able to keep track of the different hares. They began appearing in pairs. But there was an apparent hierarchy amongst them. One pair would eat peacefully together, but there was another pair that could not tolerate each other. If one was eating and the other arrived, the one eating would stop, flatten its ears, and if the arriving hare continued to approach, the waiting hare would jump straight up into the air three feet or so, then, when it landed, chase the other hare back into the forest. Sometimes they’d race around, weaving amongst the trees, and one or the other hare would arrive back at the feeding area. In a few moments the second hare would come in from a different direction, and the chase was on again. Studying photos, I saw that these conflicts happened between does.
When the coats of the hares were changing, I saw something I hadn’t expected; the hares had an outer layer which began to shed first, then a second layer also began to shed, revealing a short, shiny third layer. I thought they only had two coats- three was a surprise. For awhile, they looked a little ragged while the two outer layers were shedding. And most of them retained white ears, legs and feet, while the rest of them turned a rich brown. Then their ears shed that white layer, exposing fur so short the sun would shine through it, turning their ears pink, in the right lighting. Last to turn were their legs and feet. Their bellies became a creme-color, and eventually their legs were brown, and their feet were dappled creme and brown.
When they had lost their white ears, I could no longer tell them apart. Curiously, they began eating the carrot parts in the compost pile, and even nibbled on avocado shells and pits. They also continued to eat seeds, but gradually stopped eating seeds altogether. I also noted that there were four hares still coming near the cabin, and all were does. Where the bucks had gone, I didn’t know.
I did research and found that hares breed for the first time at about one year of age and have a gestation of thirty-six days. The first litter averages four young-called ‘leverets’. They arrive about mid-May. The does breed again shortly after giving birth and may have one or two more litters through the rest of the summer. The leverets are born on the surface of the ground in an unlined, natural depression with good vegetative cover. One of the things which distinguishes hares from rabbits is that the leverets are born fully-furred with their eyes and ears opened. Rabbit young are born in a den, naked, blind and deaf. Hare leverets are capable of walking and hopping soon after their fur dries after birth. They nurse almost immediately, then the doe will nurse them mainly at night and remain a short distance away from them during the day. The leverets will start eating vegetation at a week to ten days old and are weaned and on their own by six to seven weeks old.
Hares have a lifespan of potentially eight or nine years, but because they are the food source for so many predators, only an estimated thirty percent live one year, and around fifteen percent reach two years of age. They are extremely cyclic, especially in interior Alaska. Their numbers may vary by a factor of a hundred or more between highs and lows. The highs occur roughly ten years apart, but can be as long as fifteen years, or as short as seven to eight years. There appears to be a progression from east to west across the State, so that not all areas are seeing highs and lows at the same time.
I have not seen evidence that any of the does around my cabin have had leverets, as of June. It could be that the two bucks fell to predators and the does will have to wait until another buck arrives in the area, possibly from a litter born this spring and spreading out into new territory. There may not be another buck in the area until well into the fall.
Time will tell, and I will continue to observe my fascinating, wild hare neighbors.
Su Writer’s Voice, “By A Hare”
written:060617, Robin Song