Hare highway

Snowshoe hare tracks

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.

Snowshoe hare highway

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.

Snowshoe hare urine stain

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.

Snowshoe hare droppings and urine stains

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.

Snowshoe hare droppings and urine stain

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15 responses to “Hare highway

  1. Trying to write his name in the snow, maybe? ;)

  2. Do hares share a burrow during the winter? This spot could be where they emerge each day, emptying their bladders and bowels as they hop out. Or before they go in. Or this could be pee from the same hare on different days.

    Thanks for the fascinating info about how what hares eat can color their pee.

    • That’s a thought, Jackie. I don’t think they share resting sites, but I’m only inferring that through comments about them being relatively solitary animals. I like JA’s explanation on the likelihood of it being courtship behaviour, which would make sense. I hadn’t read those behavioural details in the references I read.

  3. The whole post was interesting, esp. the pee part! Hare highways, I like that! I knew they had “bunny trails” during the other seasons, so why not in the winter, too! Thought it appropriate that the snowshoe hare prints were scaled with a snowshoe! Did you plan that?? ~ks

    • Not intentionally, KS – I often scale tracks or things on the ground using my foot, and my foot just happened to have a snowshoe strapped to it. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Ten-to-one this is courtship behaviour. I’ve heard that snowshoe hare have really kinky sex lives: the males will leap over the female, spraying her with urine. Male hare are well known for the amount of energy they apply to mating and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out about other displays of acrobatic urination. They might even do it to display to rival males.

    I don’t think it’s too early at all. You’ll notice, for one thing, that the internet posits a single, narrow range of dates for the beginning of the mating season, despite the fact that snowshoe hare range from Ohio to Alaska. That seems unlikely. Besides, animals don’t read textbooks. We know that they’re highly variable, cyclical breeders. Diet, temperature and stress will all play a part. And I would never put it past an eager male to get a jump–no pun intended–on the breeding season.

    More importantly, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Mike Runtz describe this behaviour occuring in late December. Of anybody, he should know (if you’re not familiar with Mike Runtz, you ought to be: http://http-server.carleton.ca/~mruntz/home.html).

    So my money’s on courtship. Best thing is to ask someone with good local knowledge, or better yet, keep your own eye out in the following weeks for more signs of this behaviour.

    • Thanks, JA! I admit that I didn’t do any serious digging (I only have so much time available in the evenings), but the light searching I’d done didn’t turn up that information. That makes sense in explaining the the evidence – how interesting! I know Mike Runtz’s name, but nothing beyond that; looks like he knows what he’s talking about, though, and he’s from my area. I’m willing to believe this explanation – I’ll keep my eyes open for more signs.

  5. I like JA’s explanation for that strange display in the next-to-last photo. It makes the most sense, at least from my limited understanding. Mind you, it could well be a lot of things–aliens for instance–but courtship seems the most likely description of the scene. I’m hoping you see more indications like this that help show a more definitive picture of what’s going on.

    • The references I consulted didn’t mention anything like that in the courtship behaviour, which is one of the reasons I’d ruled it out, but I agree that it does make the most intuitive sense. I’ll have to keep watching for more clues!

  6. This is such a great post! Especially as you knew what you were looking at! During the first week of January, I had a vaguely similar experience, but, sadly, no clue as to what I was seeing, apart from the fox prints, and perhaps the owl. Script in any form is facinating! http://susansgonetothebirds.blogspot.com/2010/01/somethings-happening-here.html

    • Thanks, Susan! Quite often I find things while out hiking that I have no idea what they are, but seem interesting: I run off a dozen shots and then come home and try to identify it. I have a number of animal tracks that fall into this category that I haven’t gotten to yet. I recognize the mouse tracks (first photo) in your post, but most of the rest would leave me scratching my head, too, without a bit of research.

  7. Pingback: Tracking the porcupine « the Marvelous in nature

  8. Hi — I usually don’t make a habit of writing to other people’s blogs, but your observations about Ss hares in Eastern Ontario made me have a major memory trip to childhood. I lived and spent countless hours observing the nature of Eastern Ontario i.e. my backyard and its woods. The spraying is what I think is the hare marking where it has been and it leaves a message for other hares too. I wouldn’t rule out competition for being frisky either. They jump up with their hind legs and frolic and pee in squirts, I have seen a hare do this. As a child I became very familiar with the hares near my home and after a while they came to know my presence. I could get very close to them and after a while you get to know the differences between the hares.

  9. Pingback: Hare fare « the Marvelous in nature

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