Through the cedar forests at the back of our main property, as well as the coniferous stands over at the 100-acre woods, there is always an abundance of lagomorph (rabbits and hares) tracks. In areas thick with conifers that have more open understories the tracks are everywhere, criss-crossing back and forth. It’s funny the difference in bunny tracks between the last house and this; while at the lake I never saw a rabbit, and very rarely saw tracks, here the distinctive T-shaped tracks are everywhere.
They’re huge, compared to what I’m used to seeing, too. Those back paws (top prints, because the animal lands first with its front paws and then extends and places its back paws in front of them for the next bound) are a good 4-5 inches (10-12 cm) long. I’m fairly certain that these are Snowshoe Hare tracks. Back in the fall I glimpsed a white rabbit disappearing into the bushes at the 100-acre woods. Since I’m pretty sure I hadn’t fallen into Wonderland, the only white lagomorph around here is the Snowshoe Hare, which can start changing coats as early as September. Snowshoe Hares are about the same size and weight as Eastern Cottontails, but they have proportionally bigger (much bigger!) feet. The two species overlap in range a little (as in Ontario), but generally speaking the Snowshoe is a northern species while the Cottontail is southern. The Snowshoe’s oversized feet are an adaptation to winters with regular, heavy snowfall. When the snow is loose, the hare will spread its toes out for an even greater surface area.
Often in the areas scattered with prints there is a single, well-used trail that runs through the whole area. This is a behaviour unique to Snowshoes, not seen in Cottontails. The trails generally run between favoured foraging areas and resting sites or burrows. They’re usually called runways, but I call them the hare highways. The hares use these routes in both winter and summer (though of course they’re only really observable when there’s snow on the ground). They keep them well-maintained, nipping back encroaching vegetation with their teeth. The highways serve as emergency escape routes as well, so it pays to keep them clear of obstacles. I’ve never seen the trails being used; aside from that brief white flash in the fall, I’ve never seen a hare. Generally speaking they do most of their foraging and other activity at night, perhaps to avoid day-hunting hawks. Probably if I followed one of these highways to its end I might find the hare’s daytime resting location.
I’ve noticed that in areas well-frequented by the hares there are often orange patches in the snow. At first I was writing these off as sap stains from overhanging trees, but when I started paying more attention I noticed they only occurred around the tracks. Even closer attention revealed that some stains had a hole in the middle. They are, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, urine stains from the Snowshoe Hares. According to a number of websites I found, the orange urine is also characteristic of the Snowshoe. Its colour is probably due to the large quantity of conifer leaves/needles that the hares eat as part of their winter diet. While both Snowshoes and Cottontails will eat bark and twigs, I believe only the hares will also feed on needles. The needles contain chlorophyll, which in turn contains a type of molecule called porphyrin, also found in haemoglobin and what gives blood its red colour. This is excreted in the hare’s urine. Of course, this isn’t the only reason for orange urine, and neither does it completely eliminate Cottontails from also producing orange urine, but it’s apparently the general trend. Combined with the tracks and the hare highways, it’s a pretty good indication.
So understanding that that’s what the orange stains are – what the heck was going on here? I found this under a pine in an area frequented by Snowshoes. I noticed there were two colours of droppings in the area (below), which would likely indicate either one hare that had eaten two meals of different composition, or two hares using the same area. The arcs of urine on the left suggest that the hare peed as its butt swung around (if it was peeing as it hopped straight forward, one would expect the line of urine would be straight). My first thought was two hares fighting, circling around each other or flopping around as they scrabbled. But there’s no evidence of conflict, the snow in the area appears undisturbed but for the stains and a few normal tracks. Also, there’s that big pine branch at the side that would get in the way while fighting and would probably show broken bits if it were run into. Though each hare has a 7 to 17 acre home range it stays in and ranges often overlap, I haven’t found anything that suggests they’re territorial such that this might be some sort of territory marking. And females don’t come into estrus until March, so it’s much too early for this to be related to mating behaviour. So I’m left scratching my head over this one.