Snowshoe Hare Hop Around Northern Parts of the State
Last month, I ventured to my family’s property in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Located in the Monadnock region of southwestern New Hampshire, Fitzwilliam is about 90 minutes from where I live in Putnam.
My grandparents bought the property in 1933, my father took it over in 1968, and for the past 12 years I have owned it with my three siblings. As a youngster, I spent hours tromping through the 144 acres of mostly forested land. I now manage the forest property with help and guidance from a consulting forester. It is where I go to experience and learn from the wooded land and all its inhabitants.
I visited the property in February with the specific task of installing a wood duck nesting box in a small beaver pond in a wetland area at the base of an east-facing hill. The beavers have moved on, but the pond remains and attracts a range of wildlife. The wood duck nesting box was a gift from my friend Dick Waterman from Sprague. He maintains several wood duck nesting boxes in a large beaver pond on his property, and I had mentioned to him my interest in installing one at our beaver pond. We had seen wood ducks there in the past and now, thanks to Dick, we’ll hopefully have a resident pair.
It was a perfect day for a winter woods walk — clear, sunny sky with temperatures in the high 20s. More than a foot of snow covered the ground in the woods, but the cold had frozen the top layer, and I was able to walk easily without breaking through the snow. My snowshoes remained in the truck.
I made quick work of installing the wood duck nesting box and ventured into the woods for a walkabout. The snow gave up the secrets of the forest and the many tracks imprinted in the surface of the snow told me which mammal and avian species had been out and about before me.
I followed coyote and fox tracks up the main logging trail to a long ridgeline trail. There I found the prints of more than 10 wild turkeys from our resident flock. They had moved up through a wetland area, up a slight hill and crossed the ridgeline trail and into a thick stand of small white pines. A ruffed grouse had also crossed the ridgeline trail and left a wing impression in the snow from where it lifted off in hurried flight — perhaps to escape the jaws of the coyote that had left tracks nearby.
I kept seeing a large track that I just couldn’t place at first. I had not seen it before on our property and the impression of four long toes in the front paw really threw me off. I snapped some pictures of the track and later that night consulted my favorite tracking book “Tracking & The Art of Seeing” by Paul Rezendes. To my surprise, the track was from Lepus americanus, more commonly known as the snowshoe hare. I did not recall finding snowshoe hare tracks on our property before and had always considered them to be more northern species than one to be found in Southern New England.
I looked up information on snowshoe hare in my mammal guidebooks as well as online sources from Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the National Park Service and National Geographic. Here is what I found out.
Snowshoe hare are primarily forest dwellers, are active year-round and prefer thick cover and brush undergrowth. They are 16 to 20 inches in length and from 2 to 4 pounds in weight. They are herbivores with a diverse diet of herbaceous plants and new growth of woody vegetation in the summer and twigs, buds and bark in the winter. Like rabbits, the snowshoe hare will browse then retreat to cover. They will then produce soft green droppings that they eat again to extract all the nutrients from the plant. Firmer and dark brown oval pellets are the final droppings.
They get their curious name from their large hind feet, which are lined with stiff hairs that form a snowshoe, supporting their weight on the surface of heavy snow. The tracks I saw in New Hampshire were large and at least six feet or further apart. The animal that left those tracks was hopping, possibly at a good clip. There were coyote tracks nearby.
Snowshoe hares also blend into their surroundings thanks to the seasonal variation in their fur. In summer they are brown, perfect for camouflage in the deep woods cover and in winter they are almost pure white, all but unseen in snow covered woods. The shedding of their coat of fur occurs twice a year and is triggered by the change in length of daylight hours. The white coloration usually begins between October to December.
They are primarily a northern species, with a range as far north as the shores of the Artic Ocean and along North American mountain ranges where the altitude makes for cooler climate. They can also be found as far south as the Appalachians in Virginia and Rockies in New Mexico.
All rabbits and hares are prolific breeders. Snowshoe hare females have two to three litters per year with one to eight young, called leverets, per litter. The leverets are born fully-furred, with open eyes and ability to walk and hop. The young require little care from their mothers and are on their own within a month of birth. This is one distinct area of difference between hares and rabbits. Young cottontail rabbits are called kits and are born helpless, blind and with no fur.
Hares are adept at escaping their predators. With a keen sense of hearing they will often freeze in their tracks if a predator is detected. This is aided by their camouflage and seasonal coloration as an effective means of avoiding detection. If detected, the snowshoe hare will usually head for cover, unlike rabbits who will head to open ground for better running. When being chased, hares are known to circle their territory on well-established paths. They can run with speeds up to 30 miles per hour and ability to jump 12 feet.
We do have snowshoe hare in Connecticut. According to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection they are present in the northern regions of the state, especially parts of the state with deep forest habitat — just like many of our forested areas of The Last Green Valley.
Next time I take a woods walk here in The Last Green Valley, I’ll be on the lookout for snowshoe hare. It would be very interesting to see one with its winter white coloration and again discover its large tracks in the snow.
We live in a beautiful region full of amazing and unique animals. I hope you’ll join me as we work together to care for, enjoy and pass on to the next generation the many natural and cultural resources that make our home so very special.
Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 35 years and can be reached at email@example.com.
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