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The dance of the hares

2020 03 29 hareBy David Hawke -- It is now well into March so I assume that you know what that means… it’s rabbit dancing season! The term ‘mad as a March hare’ was coined to describe the courtship antics of both rabbits and hares, at least for the male members of the species.

A couple evenings ago, while staring out the window contemplating what “self isolation” and “social distancing” actually mean, I noticed three dark blobs under the bird feeder. With just enough snow still remaining to provide some contrast, the shapes of cottontail rabbits could be delineated.

One was demurely eating spilled seeds while the other two engaged in a lively boxing match! These rabbits were displaying the somewhat aggressive behaviours usually seen in the males of any species when trying to woo the nearby beauty. They would rush at each other, rear up and tag the other in the face with a swift forearm jab. Then sit back and watch for any sign of weakness in each other. Meanwhile the ‘nearby beauty’ had moved on to see what food could be found under the next feeder.

Much like moose in the fall, which have the males displaying their antler size to each other (yes, size matters to a moose), very little injury is incurred, just a lot of posturing and a bit of shoving and pushing. Not at all like mountain sheep who ram heads together like drunken rednecks at a bush party.

But I digress.

March is not only a time for mating, but is also a time of the year when survival is a critical skill. While cottontails remain brown all year, snowshoe hares appear to change colour from brown to white as their long winter fur grows in; now that warm weather is upon us that heavy white fur is shed and the brown fur reappears. This why the snowshoe hare is often referred to as the varying hare in the text books.

The seasonal trick for snowshoe hares is to match their fur colour to the background: white for snow, and brown for dead leaves. This time of year, that will depend upon when one stops to contemplate its next hop. If it pauses while in contrast to its background, it has just set itself up to become a meal for the great horned owl.

Interestingly, Nature has a way of balancing things out… the baby great horned owls have just hatched and Mom and Dad Owl need extra food, which is provided by brown hares seen against a white background. And the hare population needs to be lowered a bit before all the new hare babies arrive in a couple months, so the owls ensure there will be enough territory and food available for the next generation of hares. The balance of Nature, so cool.

At a time of year when we are desperately seeking signs of spring, be it the first robin, the first red-winged blackbird, or the first pussy willow to bloom… watching rabbit boxing can also lead to uplifted spirits. Unless you are a ‘nearby beauty.’ Then, rabbit boxing is just, “Oh, really guys, just figure things out and let’s get on with it.”

Dave’s Notebook: I hope that your coping methods are working for these trying times. Fresh air and exercise are still so important, but for a while, so too is separation and even isolation. Beware the carriers... those who look "okay" but are carrying and spreading the virus.

© 2020 David J. Hawke

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