Naturespeak 

The snowshoe hare

One smart hair

Whistler Naturalist

A new blanket of snow captures nature in the purest of forms. From your seated mobile vantage point moving steadily up through the various zones of our local mountains, habits of numerous wildlife cannot be easily hidden in the new snowfall. A great way to pass the time on your way to powdery bliss is following the daily routines of the local fauna.

One of the most common and certainly the most identifiable tracks seen from the chairlift is that of the snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus . Although the snowshoe hare is most active at night, you would be hard pressed to see this hare after some fresh snowfall. The snowshoe hare has very clever fur. They begin to molt their light, sandy brown fur in the fall, and replace it with luxuriously thick, white fur to effectively camouflage it from its many predators.

You may be confused at first by the tracks, as it looks like the rabbit is going backwards, because the hind leg is ahead of the front paws. But if you think about how a rabbit hops forward, it begins to make some sense.

Unfortunately for the hare, it is an important staple of bobcat, red fox, coyote, mink, large owls and raptors. Luckily for the snowshoe hare, it is a member of the Leporidae family, which includes rabbits and hares. The entire family is generally identified by the presence of long ears that are sensitive to approaching dangers. These ears when used in conjunction with their large, furry, snowshoe-like feet enable the snowshoe hare to have some hope in the predator-laden forests.

When the snowshoe hare isn’t being hunted, it is happiest feeding on small twigs, buds, coniferous needles and bark in the winter, and far more interestingly, strawberries, raspberries, fireweed and other green leafy plants in the summer.

They will often frequent the same areas using a series of connecting trails, which are the same regardless of the season. Hares prefer the cover of dense, younger forests or the edge of a wetland, rather than widely spaced old-growth where the luscious understorey goodness is sparse. They prefer to set up shop in an abandoned burrow, hollow log or tree or under dense brush, rather than building something of their own.

Snowshoe hares are ready to breed at about one year old and can have up to three litters in a year, each with an average of four young. There is no rest for the weary mother (Hariette?) as her young, as with all hares, are born with fur, curious open eyes and begin hopping around almost immediately – unlike rabbits that are born naked and blind. Within five months, the young have reached their adult weight.

Next time you are riding the chairlift, or are taking a rest in the Khyber, take a look in the snow around you. It can reveal interesting details about the creatures you are sharing the powder with.

Upcoming Events:

March 27 at Millennium Place, 7 p.m.: Dr. John Ford, Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, is coming up to Whistler to talk about killer whales. Dr. Ford is one of the pre-eminent scientists studying killer whale behaviour and biology. Join him for a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Orcas.

April 5: The Whistler Astronomy Club presents GALAXY QUEST Star Party! All night at CalChek Campground. The best time to few the Virgo Cluster of galaxies and the planets Jupiter and Saturn. E-mail stars@nemy.com for more info.

For more information on the Whistler naturalists, please email Veronica Sommerville at veronicarobin@yahoo.ca .

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