Over the years I had opportunities to observe snowshoe hares while working with students at the Environmental Learning Center first at Isabella, Minn., and the last three decades at Wolf Ridge, near Finland, in the hills above Lake Superior.

Each fall snowshoe hares turn from their brown summer coats to white winter ones. The change takes about 72 days, with most of it occurring in the last 30 days. About a month ago, hares had white feet and legs. About three weeks ago the white was seen about an inch up on the sides of their bodies. Now they are all white and ready to blend in with the snow.

It's interesting that the fall change in fur color is from the bottom up, but the spring change in March and April is from the top down, which helps ensure survival at these particular times. It's harder for hawks and other enemies to see them. The eastern cottontail rabbits we see in the Twin Cities area are brown all year.

Snowshoe hares are found in the northern half of Minnesota. They are gnawing animals with ears about 4 inches, a short tail, soft fur, long hind legs, and they weigh 2 to 4 pounds. Their name is derived from the soles of their large feet, well-furred, enabling them to run on snow cover without sinking down. In summer the hares eat green vegetation. In winter, it is buds and bark. Although the home range of a snowshoe hare is about 10 acres, it may travel up to about a mile.

There are fundamental differences between hares and rabbits. Hares are precocial at birth, having a full fur coat and functioning eyes and ears, and they can hop around within a few hours. Newborn rabbits are confined to the nest after birth, naked and helpless, and do not open their eyes for some days.

Some other observations:

  • Gossamers — single strands of spider silk and strung between branches in trees and shrubs — glisten silver-white in the sunshine.
  • Often the peak of the whitetail deer rut occurs about Nov. 12, but weather and other variables can change the date a bit. Short-tailed weasels have turned from brown to white except for the tips of their tails that remain black.
  • The non-native weeping willows, Lombardy poplars and Norway maples have very attractive golden-yellow foliage. Deciduous woodlands are quite bare now, but the persistent green leaves of common buckthorn trees are very apparent on forest edges and sunny openings, showing how much this alien species has invaded our native forests.

Jim Gilbert has taught and worked as a naturalist for more than 50 years.