Snowshoe hares are common to the central Oregon mountains, but not commonly seen
Central Oregon has six species of rabbit-like mammals including the black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbit, mountain cottontail, pygmy rabbit, pika and snowshoe hare. If you're out and about up in the Ochoco Mountains this time of year, there's a good chance you'll see the tracks of the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus).
The most interesting feature of this hare is its "snowshoe" hind feet, which are larger than its front feet and have longer toes that are capable of spreading wide. The soles of the feet are covered with coarse hair that grows even longer in winter. These natural snowshoes enable the hare to stay atop soft snow and keep it from slipping on icy crusts when being pursued by a predator.
Rabbits have evolved with a small body and shorter ears and legs to live in more dense shrubby areas. Their smaller body allows them to quickly find cover without having to run far from predator. Hares however, have developed long powerful legs and bodies that are built to out-run predators in more open country.
As is typical in the rabbit family, female hares are slightly larger than their male counterparts. With the coming of the winter snows, the snowshoe hare exchanges its rusty or grayish brown coat for one of white. This patchwork process usually takes about two months and is completed about the time the ground is covered with lasting snow. Then its fur is almost entirely white except for its black eyelids and tips of the ears.
Adult snowshoe hares weigh between three and four pounds and have a variable diet. In the spring, summer and fall they browse on green vegetation such as grasses and forbs as well as the new growth of aspen, birches and willows. During the winter, they forage on shrubs and trees, eating the bark, twigs and even the needles of conifers such as spruce, fir, cedar, tamarack and hemlock.
Most of a hare's digestion occurs in its hindgut and in order to extract all the nutrients from its food, they must cycle it through their digestive system twice, which means re-ingesting its feces. Some studies have shown that hares have even resorted to cannibalism in some instances.
It is true that hares, like their rabbit cousins, are quite prolific reproducers. Between April and August they can have two to three litters of two to four young. Unlike rabbits that are born hairless and blind, hares are born furred and with open eyes.
Life for a young hare is not easy. Up to 85 percent of hares born in the wild don't live longer than one year. Lucky ones can live up to five years. Many of Central Oregon's carnivores prey on snowshoe hares including red foxes, gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats, mink and raptors. Population densities of hares are very cyclic and can vary from one to many hundreds per square mile.
When predators are after you 24 hours a day, you learn to develop some strategies to deal with not being eaten. Snowshoe hares have very good hearing that helps them identify approaching predators. When a predator is detected, the young especially freeze in their tracks and try to blend in with the surrounding vegetation.
Most people have probably seen those chases (whether actual or created) on nature channels where the snowshoe hare is bounding across the snow with a hungry bobcat or cougar close on its tail. Hares can reach speeds of 27 miles per hour and cover up to ten feet in a single leap. They are also very good at quick changes in direction and vertical bounds that can confuse and irritate a pursuing predator.
With the big back legs and feet, it's not surprising that hares are good swimmers and can swim across rivers and small lakes. Biologists have even seen them entering water to escape a predator.
Some people may remember the old storybook bunny named Thumper. Most hares communicate by thumping the ground. They sometimes fight with other hares by boxing or scratching but haven't been seen biting each other (perhaps Mike Tyson should take notice of this). They may hiss or snort when aggressive but make loud squealing sounds when caught by a predator, otherwise they aren't very vocal.
During the day, hares can be seen grooming or napping. They don't wander too far from their home territory and have a system of paths that are very familiar to them. In the summertime, they can be seen taking dust baths in order to remove parasites from their fur.
The snowshoe hare is one example of the many animals around us that most of us seldom see.