Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Despite their name, jackrabbits aren’t rabbits. Cottontails are rabbits. Jackrabbits are hares. But they’re both part of the leporidae family, having sprouted from the lagomorph order along with the pika.
Perhaps you’re wondering how a jackrabbit, which is a hare, got its name. Apparently, a few generations ago these hares were mistakenly called “jackass rabbits” because their huge ears resembled those of donkeys. Since then the jackrabbit has acquired a gentler, albeit still incorrect, name.
One way to distinguish a hare from a rabbit is size. Hares are typically taller than rabbits and have longer legs and larger ears. But the most significant difference between the two is how they come into the world.
Female cottontail rabbits may breed in the spring, summer, or all year long, depending on species and surroundings. After approximately a month’s pregnancy, two to six bunnies are born blind, furless, and helpless. The mother stays out of the nest except to cover the youngsters with grass or hair, and to nurse them. The youngsters’ eyes open in about five days, and after two weeks the bunnies are able to leave the nest. They’re timid and cautious at this age, never venturing beyond the safety of their burrow. But before long they have the necessary confidence to face the world.
Rabbits may have a good “childhood,” but most lead a short life, with less than 20 percent of them making it to their first birthdays. If they’re lucky, they will live for a couple of years.
Hares follow a different pattern. Female hares breed year-round and may have three or four litters during that period. A hare’s gestation period is longer than a rabbit’s, resulting in newborns that come into the world covered in fur and with their eyes open. It’s interesting that, even though they’re advanced at birth, young hares, called leverets, often stay with their mother for several months after they are able to take care of themselves.
As adults, hares are typically solitary animals, but some do live in groups. We’ve heard and read about gatherings of as many as two dozen jackrabbits, especially on moonlit nights. Rabbits are more social than hares and will live together in colonies.
Hares tend to survive much longer than rabbits. But even with an average lifespan of five to six years, hare overpopulation is rarely a serious problem. Their numbers are controlled by several things, including disease and predation. Occasionally, in agricultural areas where food is plentiful, the population can grow so large that hares become pests. Those juicy crops provide the critters with wonderful dinners.
You won’t usually see hares and rabbits in the same habitat. On the whole, rabbits prefer thick, brushy areas with plenty of hiding places. Lacking the speed to escape predators, they take cover until the danger passes by.
Hares, on the other hand, live in open areas with little cover. They rely on their exceptional speed and leaping ability to evade predators. When active, a hare rarely walks. Instead it hops five to 10 feet at a time. When danger threatens, a hare easily can change its leap to a 20-foot hop, briefly reaching speeds of 30 to 35 miles per hour. When hopping at a more moderate speed, every fourth or fifth jump is especially high. That’s done to get a better look at its surroundings, especially when it’s being pursued by a predator. But when it races along at top speed, it makes no such special jumps.
While “running” for its life, a hare flashes the white underside of its tail, presumably to warn other hares of danger. Occasionally it may stop and look back to see whether the predator has given up the chase. If not, it may send out a stronger alert by pausing to loudly thump its hind feet, and then resume hopping. In extreme instances, a hare may take to the water. It hops right in and dog-paddles with all four feet. It’s amazing that, despite all these tricks, some end up being dinner for coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, as well as to hawks and large owls.
Both rabbits and hares are herbivores, feeding mostly on grasses and forbs (broad-leaved, non-woody plants.) Because they seldom drink water, their bodies rely on juicy leaves and stems to meet their needs. You might wonder how desert-dwellers such as the black-tailed jackrabbit get sufficient liquids in the barren environment. The answer is that they munch on cacti. A hare’s sharp teeth can bite right through cactus skin to the flesh inside.
Here’s a way to figure out whether a hare or a rabbit has been eating your garden. Twigs nipped off by hares leave clean, slanted cuts, while ends bitten by rabbits have a rougher, nibbled appearance. (By the way, twigs browsed upon by deer look pinched off.)
Unless they live in a region with year-round plant growth, both hares and rabbits are reduced to eating woody and dry vegetation in the winter. It might not be especially tasty, but it meets their nutritional needs.
During our year of full-timing in Arizona, we frequently shared the campgrounds and hiking trails with rabbits and hares. These hopping cousins can be found throughout the United States, Canada, and nearly everywhere else on Earth except Antarctica. So, keep your eyes open.