Wild Files: It’s Our Nature
By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As we kick off March, let’s talk about hares. There are 40 species worldwide and out of the three found in Canada, the species most found hopping throughout the unceded territories of the Secwépemc, and Ktunaxa Peoples, and the land chosen as home by the Métis Peoples of British Columbia (B.C.) is the snowshoe hare. Snowshoe hares are found only in North America. They live throughout Canada except for the arctic and thrive in forested areas throughout B.C. apart from Vancouver Island. Hares are herbivores and can live up to 12 years in the wild, but typically only live four to eight years on average with predators such as foxes, lynxes, coyotes, and Great Horned owls on the prowl. They have two front ever-growing incisors and moult twice a year.
The difference between hares and rabbits is more than just a hair. Hares are larger, and have longer ears, although the snowshoe hare’s ears are smaller than most hares in comparison, at an average of 70 millimetres (mm) in length. Hares are nocturnal creatures and come in all shapes and sizes, but the snowshoe hare, being one of the smaller species, weighs 1.55 kilograms (kg) on average while some hares can be up to 75 centimetres (cm) in length. They also often have black markings on their fur. Hares make their nests above ground compared to the underground burrows rabbits call home. Rabbits have 44 chromosomes; hares have 48 and do not make for domesticated pets like their cuddly cousins.
Snowshoe hares are highly adaptable to their environment, starting with their fur colour that changes with the seasons. They are grey and brown during the spring and summer months; by mid-winter they are almost pure white to camouflage in with the winter woodsy wonderlands in which they habitat. Snowshoe hares travel on well-furred large hind feet that are like snowshoes in comparison to those of jackrabbits.
Despite their name, jackrabbits are hares and can jump up to 10 feet high. The two main types are the black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbit. Both are found throughout North America, while the white-tailed jackrabbit is one of the other three hare species in Canada; the third is the arctic hare. White-tailed jackrabbits are found in prairie provinces such as Manitoba. In the 1920s and 1930s white-tailed jackrabbits were considered plentiful and pesky in southern B.C. but since have been extirpated across the province.
Compared with other members of the Lepus family, snowshoe hares are like super hare-oes, outrunning their predators at speeds of 48 kilometres (km) per hour and having the ability to leap nearly four metres in a single bound.
Jacks and Jills
Male hares are referred to as jacks; females are called jills. Snowshoe hares begin breeding the first spring after their birth which is usually mid-March. Their courtship is playful jack and jills often travel together to forage, chasing and jumping over one another along the way. After a 36-day gestation period the first litter is born in May and can contain anywhere from one to 13 young called leverets that are born wide eyed and fully furred. Rabbits are born naked with their ears and eyes closed. Jills mate with several jacks and a group of hares are referred to a husk, drove, or down.
The idiom, ‘Mad as a March hare’ comes from some of the madcap behaviours you may witness from different hare species during the month of March, such as chases and boxing bouts, which are a part of their courting rituals. If a jill boxes a jack she is either testing his determination or displaying she is not yet ready to mate. Hares hold symbolism in several cultures. In some Indigenous cultures, tribes honoured the Great Hare and thought of it as a demiurge (played a role in the creation of the world.) To Egyptians they represent procreation and immortality while to the Celtics they represent abundance, prosperity, and good fortune. While the infamous tortoise and hare fable suggest that the latter species is a cocky breed, hares are in truth calm and shy.