Because eastern cottontails are among the most common and familiar Pennsylvania mammals, it may be news to some that snowshoe hares also inhabit the state. Perhaps that's because they are so well camouflaged.
During the summer, snowshoe hares are cloaked in a rusty brown pelage that blends into their natural surroundings. In the fall, they molt into a snow white form that makes them almost invisible against a snowy background. Only the tips of their ears are black. Because their appearance varies from season to season, they are also called "varying hares."
"Snowshoe hare' is probably the better name because it refers to their unusually large hind feet. The toes on these feet are heavily furred and can be widely spread enabling the feet to act as snowshoes. They can actually run on top of deep snow.
Snowshoe hares are most common in the northern half of the state where they inhabit mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets. Though primarily a vegetarian favoring grasses, forbs and shrubs, they also eat carrion.
Behaviorally, snowshoe hares resemble cottontails. They are primarily nocturnal and spend most of the daylight hours resting in a "form" -- a small depression in the ground in dense vegetation or next to a log or tree trunk.
Courtship begins in March with fights and chases between males to establish dominance. Male-female interactions include chasing, jumping and biting.
Females give birth to three to five young after a 36-day pregnancy. At birth, young hares weigh about 2.5 ounces and are precocial -- fully furred and their eyes are open. It's one of several key differences between hares and rabbits, which are altricial -- born hairless and blind. Young hares wean at five weeks of age when they weigh about 22 ounces. When fully grown in about five months, snowshoe hares weigh about 3 pounds.
At more northern latitudes where snowshoe hares are more common, their populations experience cycles of abundance. Their numbers peak every 10 or 11 years. This population cycle may be due to varying predator numbers or variations in food supply. Pennsylvania snowshoe hare populations are more stable.
The hunting season for snowshoe hares in Pennsylvania runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Harvest is limit to one hare per day with a possession limit of two.
Scott Shalaway is a biologist and author. His other weekly Post-Gazette column, " GETintoNATURE ," is published in the GETout section, available only in the early Sunday edition sold Saturdays in stores. Shalaway can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com and RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033.