Each winter, the snowshoe hare's coat turns white - even when no snow is on the ground. One day while I was hiking through the woods during a snowless period in December, I came within a few feet of a white snowshoe hare that was snugly hunkered down in the underbrush. Amid the drabness of bare earth and dead leaves, his whiteness almost sparkled. Instinct was telling him to remain motionless, as he had done countless times before. His strategy of freezing in place had worked like a charm when his fur was a rusty brown in the summer or when, in his white uniform, snow covered everything. But now his white snowsuit made him very visible.
I watched as this elusive snowshoe hare was not so elusive. He serenely wiggled his nose almost oblivious to my presence, but I was sure he knew I was there. When I got too close for his comfort, he bounded out of his bed in a flash and became a white ghost dashing across the snowless forest floor. He looked so out of place. In moments he was out of sight, swallowed up by a thick grove of young conifers and beech saplings with their brown leaves still fluttering on the branches.
Lise Bofinger of Concord, who has taught science at the Concord High School for the last 28 years, told me the reduced daylight triggers the snowshoe hare's change from summer brown to winter white. She said she saw an all-white snowshoe hare earlier this winter - before it snowed - and that he remained motionless, as if this would help him to go unnoticed. She added, "The snowshoe hare I saw thought he had the world all figured out, but his instincts were no help this time. Some animals are glad there is no snow, but the snowshoe hare is not one of them."
Snowshoe hares are heavily preyed upon by owls, hawks, coyotes and bobcats. When they are wearing all white while the landscape is not yet covered with snow makes them extra vulnerable. It is helpful that the female hare can have several litters a year. In fact, she can become pregnant with a second litter before giving birth to the first. Unlike rabbits, baby hares are fully furred and open-eyed when they are born and can hop about within a day. It is estimated that only 30 percent will live longer than a year.
Can a white-clad snowshoe hare know how noticeable he is when snow is not on the ground? It might be too late before he finds out. His whereabouts is a "dead" giveaway and one of his predators is sure to have a happy meal. If the snowshoe hare I saw in the woods survived that long period without snow in early winter, I am sure he is thankful the snow has finally arrived.