Monday, February 15, 2010

February 15: Snowshoe Hare

Around here, when we talk about wild rabbits--as in, "I'm going rabbit hunting with my beagles this weekend"--we aren't really talking about true rabbits. The only native Maine rabbit is the Eastern cottontail, which doesn't live this far north in the state. And even in southern Maine its numbers are severely declining. What we do have are snowshoe hares. Hares are not rabbits. Many of the differences are subtle, but basically the hare is larger, with bigger feet and longer legs, and its young are precocial--that is, they're born with fur and open eyes, unlike the more helpless rabbit kits. (Interesting side note: baby hares are called "leverets." Probably less interesting side note: this factoid once helped me pick up a cute Harvard guy at a party way back in my college days; he lived in Leverett House and was impressed that I knew what the word meant.)

The snowshoe hare also possesses the neat trick of growing in a new coat each fall, so that by winter it is all white (except for black ear tips) and can easily camouflage itself in the snow. As the snow starts to melt in spring, the grey fur grows back in patches so that the creature still blends in with the mottled ground cover. The cottontail doesn't do this, though its tail does look exactly like a white ball of cotton.

All that aside, old habits are hard to break. So for the rest of this post, every time I say "rabbit," know that I really mean "snowshoe hare."
Winter morph snowshoe hare. Photo courtesy of US Forest Service.

Rabbit tracks are the first animal track I ever learned. I distinctly remember my father pointing out to me the pattern of their tracks in the snow behind our house: two little indentations from the front feet and then prints of the longer, bigger hind-feet ahead of them in the snow. I was only about four, but I've never forgotten this lesson, in part because we see so many rabbit tracks criss-crossing the woods around here. And droppings, and nibbled young trees. By all accounts, we should see as many or more rabbits than we do deer. Yet I've only seen the occasional rabbit in the woods or dashing across a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

That's why I was so excited yesterday afternoon to see a rabbit bounding through the woods right across the trail in front of my friend Brian and me on Beech Hill. We had seen plenty of tracks in the snow. One day a few weeks ago we had even heard rabbit-hunting hounds in baying pursuit of their quarry, and a little later, gunshots. Between the two of us we've probably seen close to a hundred bird species on the hill. But neither of us had seen a rabbit there. And this one was almost entirely white, in prime winter pelage. If it hadn't run right in front of us, we'd never have seen it in the snowy woods. So it was a particularly gratifying sighting of this very common but elusive species: the "rabbit" / snowshoe hare.

Startled white rabbit,
the snow keeps all your secrets
except your flight path.

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