Sunday, January 23, 2011

My elusive neighbours: prairie hares

Too high to leap here...
It was late when I left the office. I felt tired and achy after more than a week of presenteeism and wanted only a hot bath. Or wine. Or sleep. Or preferably all three. High quantities, in any order.

Sky blurred into night, snow shimmered in the headlights of my van. I slowed to turn into the network of alleys behind my house. And stopped.

Ahead, five metres on, eyes flashed at me. White on white, a hare on hard-packed snow, pure energy coiled in the middle of my route. It sprang and twisted and took off down the alley to the next alley south -- the one that goes to my garage.

I drove slowly after it. On my left, the prairie hare ran for a snowbank, scaled it, and leaped over a fence. On my right, a second one appeared, eyes shining from a drift beside the roadway. It stared, then ran in gliding leaps, pausing for seconds at a time to peer back at me. It passed half a dozen backyards before veering through a gap beside a hedge.

These hares are new to me this winter. At least, their official name is: White-tailed jackrabbits, which as anyone can tell from a name like that, are hares, not rabbits at all. (Names of species are oh, so logical.) I often see them in the alley and my front yard. Usually at night. And usually two. Siblings, or a mated pair? Or do they make that distinction?

They're not new to this community, but until this year, I called them rabbits. Grey-streaked in summer, they look to me like cute cottontails, but without those plush-toy fluffy tails. (I am perhaps a less-than-attentive observer of nature.)
White-tailed jackrabbit mid-colour change. 
Late fall. All photos © Shelley Banks

One day late last fall, when I was leaving work, I saw one standing near my (red, right side of pic) van, the weirdest rabbit I've ever seen. Its legs were far too long -- and totally white. The winter colour changes had begun.

After that, I called them snowshoe hares. They are small, with neater ears than cartoon images I've seen of desert jackrabbits. But snowshoe hares like forests, and my city is in the middle of the prairie. The prairie is also where white-tailed jackrabbits have long lived -- in addition to city parks and laneways. Eventually, I accepted the obvious: these were my neighbours.

On my way to work the morning after I saw the pair in the alley -- I was still sick, but ready for another presentee day -- I slowly traced the same route in reverse. That white-tail's tracks were clearly visible, its long thin footprints chiseled deep into the snow.
No time to look before the leap --
I hope there were no dogs... 

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