Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011

My part of Sterling is experiencing a "high" in the scarcity-abundance cycle of snowshoe hares. On a recent walk in new-fallen snow, I was amazed by how many tracks hares had made in a single night.

Maybe you've noticed, snowshoe hares usually use the same trails when moving to and from their feeding areas. After a few days of use on snow-covered ground, these runways become quite obvious. While on my walk, I got to thinking about how the travels of hares resemble those of humans.

A hare's runways are used for traveling from its resting spot in a forest or brushy area to a place where food grows. In summer, snowshoe hares in these parts mainly eat buds, twigs, leaves and grasses. In winter, most of what they eat is twigs and needles of spruces, along with bark, twigs and buds of aspens and willows. Much of this food grows in open areas, where hares can easily be spotted by predators, including lynx, coyotes, owls and hawks. Hares feed mainly during the hours of dusk and dawn, when the light is low, allowing them to eat without being eaten.

Imagine being a hare, having to travel from under a sheltering spruce tree in a forest to a place in the open, where your food can be found. Part of your path will be along the easiest route, where you can hop along in weak light without bouncing off trees or snagging your hide on something. Since most predators are larger than you, your runway occasionally passes through small openings in tangles of limbs and brush, just large enough for you to wiggle through. If and when you reach your feeding area, you find that so many hares have been there before you, the shelves are as bare.

When we humans need food, we also usually take the same route to the same store. I no doubt help deepen the ruts in the Sterling Highway between my home and Soldotna, my main habitat for gathering a food supply. When Fred Meyer doesn't satisfy my needs, I'll hop over to Safeway. Once in a while I'll make tracks to Gourmet Garden for a hunk of gorgonzola. My other runways are to the homes of friends and to fishing locations.

Once hares arrive at a feeding area, they do a lot of hopping around, looking for food in their ever-changing world. A heavy snowfall lifts them to a higher elevation, bringing more food within their reach. Sometimes they have to compete with moose for low browse. Predators are another good reason for leaving the main road. Any shadow or sound that might be a predator triggers an instinct in hares that sends them galloping off at warp speed on their oversized hind feet.

Juvenile hares tend to be more active and less cautious than adults. These curious young explorers often wander from the safety of the main trails and get into trouble, not unlike their human counterparts. Hares also leave their main pathways for mating, a frenzied activity in which participants leave tracks most everywhere, just like humans.

I figure the biggest difference between hares and humans involves predators. I doubt that engineers designing our highways give much thought to our being chased down and chewed up while driving to town.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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