Woo in the woods

Posted: Friday, February 12, 2010

I've noticed that the snowshoe hares in my neighborhood must've been romantically interacting a bit last year. They're everywhere.

While I was away from home for a couple of hours the other day, one hopped up the four steps to my deck, made tracks all over the deck and hopped back down. For all I know, it rang the doorbell.

Breeding season for these hares runs from spring to early fall. They start at age 1. The gestation period is 36 to 37 days. They have two to three litters each year. In years when their population is increasing, the litters often contain six young. Immediately after giving birth, the females start breeding again.

For some weeks now, "my" hares have been eating spruce needles, standing on the snow berms beside my driveway and browsing the lower branches. Every time I shovel the driveway, new food comes within their reach.

They aren't called snowshoe hares for nothing. Their outsized, heavily-furred hind feet are perfectly suited for making a living in snow country. A sufficiently motivated snowshoe hare can make 10-foot leaps and achieve speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Snowshoe hare populations undergo dramatic cycles of scarcity and abundance. It's unknown whether disease, overcrowding, shortage of food or some other factor or factors causes the population crashes. It's not predation. Biologists say the abundance of hares determines the number of predators, not the other way around. Lynx are one the main predators of hares on the Kenai Peninsula. For one reason and another, most hares never see their second birthday.

This is the third time I've witnessed a hare "boom" since moving to Sterling in 1978. Toward the end of the last peak, I was snaring them. Not only did they give me daily exercise, but I enjoyed cooking and eating them.

Something you notice when snaring hares is their habit of using the same trails. A narrow opening through brush or downed timber on a well-traveled "runway" is an ideal place to set a snare.

If you clean or dress hares, be sure to wear rubber gloves and thoroughly cook the meat. Hares can be infected with tularemia, which can be transmitted to humans. Signs of infected hares are sluggishness of movement and spots on the liver and spleen. Hares can also carry fleas.

It's a good thing male humans don't get as romantically frenzied as male hares when competing for females. I have yet to see two men jumping over each other, madly chasing each other in circles and urinating on each other. Of course, it's possible that I don't hang out at the right places.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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