Snowshoe hare begin romance in February’s longer days
As the month of February is winding down, the grip of subzero temperatures has lessened a bit and we have had some readings that even got above freezing. These temperatures, along with the longer days (we are now approaching 11 hours of daylight), can give more of a spring-like
But we know that winter is in no hurry to exit. Temperatures may be on the slow rise, but in the weeks to come we will still have cold snaps and the other part of winter — snow — will no doubt be making its appearance as well.
We’ve had quite a winter. The consistent cold has set a couple of records at the Weather Service. We’ve recorded the most consecutive days of sub-zero readings (23) and the most days for the whole season with lows below zero degrees (60).
This winter will certainly be remembered as one of cold and snow.
Despite the cold and snow data, I find that it is another statistic, the amount of daylight, that gets a response from local critters at this time. Being out in the chilly and dark times all winter without some of the artificial lights that we have, they are more likely to take note of the brighter changes.
February is one of the best months to see and hear the wildlife responding to the longer days. It is our driest month and, although it’s cold, we frequently have clear days and nights.
All of the light that lengthens each day causes these winter residents to be more active. The hibernators continue to sleep, but those that did not sleep or migrate now get excited as we get nearer to spring.
Each morning I hear the “fee-bee” calls of chickadees, the nasal grunts of nuthatches and the drumming of woodpeckers. Added to these sounds of feeder birds are the calls of ravens, crows and blue jays.
But these February activities are not limited to birds.
The squirrels — gray, red and flying — all take note of each other and dash about in hierarchy struggles that I like to call pre-mating behavior. The wild canines — foxes, coyotes and wolves — patrol and mark territories with a regularity at this time.
All of these wild critters that remained with us all winter are now in early preparation for spring families.
But I find that the movements of two other residents are very active in late February: Cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares survive the winter in various shelters that give warmth and protection from the many predators that seek them.
If they are fortunate, food is nearby too. Both are lagomorphs, not rodents. With similar teeth, they are able to gnaw and chew on plants, often shrubs and trees, for their meals.
While the rabbit remains in a brown coat all winter, the hare changed to a white attire late last fall.
I have seen the tracks of both throughout the winter weeks. Both prefer to leave their hiding places and travel out for meals under the cover of darkness. And so, their tracks may have been visible nearly every day of this fascinating winter, but seeing the track makers themselves has been limited.
Although I found their trails and snow routes often in the earlier months, it has been only lately, during February, that the tracks are far more abundant.
This is especially true with the snowshoe hare. Last week as I trudged through the spruces and tamaracks of a forest and bog, I saw their tracks and trails every few feet. I walked here fewer than two days after a new 5-inch snowfall, and so all the previous tracks were covered. Everything that I saw here was new.
When the snowfall had passed on, skies cleared and we marveled in a bright night of a full moon. The moonlight on the new snow cover seemed to have affected the hare and they hopped about with great energy. These routes appear to be more than that of feeding activity.
These late February nights are when the hare exhibit their pre-mating behavior on the way to mating and early spring litters, even if we still have snow on the ground.
After a long winter, we all note the longer days.
But we are not alone: Northland wildlife responds as well. And they will continue to do so in the coming weeks.
Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.