Editor’s Note: Though he is a very nice guy and a great blogger Clare Kines, the author of this blog post, might have lived in the far north for too long. Apparently the lack of birds and the abundance of cold has led to him thinking that writing a blog post about bunnies is an acceptable topic for Bird Love Week. We thought about doing an intervention but then decided that this post is so loaded with awesome pictures (boxing hares!) that we would just let him carry on so we can see what his frozen, bird-deprived mind will come up with next. We hope this is the right decision – only time will tell!
Largely because of the same reason this past summer was a such a good year for Snowy Owls, resulting in a huge irruption of them into the south, we are seeing huge numbers of Arctic Hares this spring. Last summer saw lemmings at a high point in their population cycles. Predators that rely on lemmings, like the Snowy Owl, took advantage of the bounty and had great breeding success, raising large broods which, after the lemming population crashes, dispersed far and wide.
Another effect of the bounty of lemmings is other prey species enjoyed a bit of a respite from their position at the bottom of the food chain. Ground nesting birds (and up here they are all ground nesting birds, well except the ones on cliffs, which are still technically… oh you get the point) enjoyed good breeding success. Arctic Hare also were largely ignored by predators and bred, well, like rabbits.
This time of year, April, is when the Arctic Hare are most evident up here. Hares take advantage of the warming sun to forage on hill sides. This year, because the decreased predation pressure, they are everywhere. This is my thirteenth spring up here and I have never seen anything close to the numbers of hare we are seeing now. We always see one or two of them about town in the spring, this year they are in groups of six or seven. In the evenings as we take our drives, we often find small groups all along our route. Foraging, napping, fighting.
These groups pale (sorry) in comparison to the herds that can be found in nearby areas. On the hills lining Strathcona Sound, about an hours snowmobile ride away, several large herds can be found. These herds range from 30 to over a hundred individuals. And while I haven’t made it over their yet I hope to before they disperse into breeding territories.
Mad as a March Hare entered our vocabulary because of the behaviour of other hares in their breeding season. Up here, spring comes later, but mad as an April Hare doesn’t quite have the same alliteration to it. In the spring, as the breeding period approaches two hare, that heretofore had been peacefully feeding side by side, will suddenly leap up and commence a high speed hare chase. Ears pinned back they’ll zig zag across the tundra in full flight. And then there are the boxing matches.
Hares box when they fight. Facing off they’ll rear up on their hind legs and flail at each other with their forepaws. Up until recently I assumed that this was two males boxing to show dominance, but I was wrong. Some times the boxing erupts in conflict while the animals are feeding. One will get too close, the other will let it know that its personal space is being infringed on. But most of the fighting apparently occurs when female hares will battle a male that wants to mate before she is ready. In the world of the Arctic Hare, boxing means No.
But around this time of the year, there’ll be less boxing and more Yes. Males will occasionally display by standing up on all fours and, well, showing off their equipment. Females become less likely to rebuff male advances, and copulation takes place quickly without much fanfare. Apparently without fidelity to a specific mate, although pairs will soon move off and establish, and defend, their own territory to raise their litter.
This year with lemming numbers very low the Hares will see a lot more pressure on them by predators. They’ll take over bottom spot on the food chain and we’ll not likely see numbers like this again next spring. Gyrfalcon, which prey heavily on ptarmigan and hares should do very well this year. They are already at their aeries, already starting their mating, along with Ravens our earliest nesting birds, getting a jump on the breeding season. Look for them coming to a southern location near you this fall.
A fish may love a bird, but where would they live?
Bird Love Week is seven days of exploration of avian amore here on 10,000 Birds from April 22-28. We love birds, and the topic of birds loving other birds and in the process making more birds is a fascinating one we know you will enjoy. Mike, Corey, and a bevy of Beat Writers have been working on this one for awhile as the perfect expression of our love of all things avian. To see all of our Bird Love Week posts, just click here. But be warned – Bird Love Week is neither for the faint of heart nor for the permanently prudish – you may end up with images that you never imagined seared onto your brain.