By David Hawke -- Every eight or 10 years, the woodlots and backyards of our region erupt in rabbits. Rabbits on the lawn, rabbits in the garden, rabbits crossing the road, dead rabbits laid at your feet by the family cat, and well, just rabbits everywhere. This is a natural cycle with the realm of nature, and peaks within a fairly regular period.
This high population often means that the predator population is low, and sure enough, coyotes and foxes have been victim to mange over the past couple years. Not all coyotes and foxes, but a lot of them, thus leaving the survivors and great horned owls to keep the lid on the rabbit population. Without constant control, the bouncing bunnies breed, well, like rabbits, and there you have it.
Within a year or so these cottontails will be back to 'normal' levels as their current abundance is ensuring the healthy survival of this year's kits, cubs and owlets.
These "bunny-rabbits" are very adept at finding a home in urban areas. Whereas their big cousins, snowshoe hares and European hares (also called 'jack rabbits'), like to be out in the wild lands, cottontail rabbits prefer to burrow under garden sheds or overwinter beneath that tarp you threw over the yard-tools last fall.
Since I'm throwing these terms at you, perhaps a moment is needed to figure out what makes a hare a hare, and a rabbit a rabbit. Biologically, they are both part of a group of mammals known as lagomorphs. Pikas are also part of this group, but we don't have them here, so I won't discuss them.
Lagomorphs are kind of like rodents, but not really. One of the easiest ways to tell them apart is to look at their teeth: rodents have two upper teeth used for nipping off twigs, and these teeth have orange enamel on the front; lagomorphs have four upper teeth (two very small ones are hidden directly behind the larger ones) and have enamel on both sides of the tooth. So next time you're out doing some rabbit-wrestling, take close look inside their mouth... quite amazing, actually.
To separate the rabbits from the hares, you need to study their home life: hares give birth to fuzzy young on the bare ground, while cottontails produce naked little guys in an underground burrow (which, if you hail from England, is called a warren; which, if you are from around here, is called a rabbit hole. Woe, the demise of the English language).
Because cottontail rabbits stay brown year round, they can be a bit easier to see if you are a hawk, owl or coyote: This may be a factor in their fluctuating populations. Plus, rabbits tend to be a bit more skittish than their white-furred cousins the hares, and movement is a dead giveaway to one's location... the emphasis being on the word 'dead'. Perhaps this is why snowshoe hare tend to have a rather smug look upon their face, sensing they are better evolved at predator deception.
To move about their home territory, both rabbits and hares will traverse the area in detail, locating every little hiding spot and place to find food. If a good feeding area is found near a good hiding spot, a trail between them is soon packed into the grasses. When the native peoples, settlers and trappers grew hungry, a snare set on a rabbit runway often provided a nutritious meal.
Although the snowshoe hare changes colour from winter-white to summer-brown, both European hares and cottontail rabbits stay brown all year round. If the critter you are observing is brown and the size of a small fawn, that would be your 'jack rabbit'; if it's small and 'weally-weally cute', that would be your cottontail rabbit. Also, cottontails have a patch of rusty colored fur on the nape of their neck (I have no idea why, but there it is).
On a recent walk in the nearby fields, I found where a cottontail had been eating unopened pods of milkweed. New to me. The chewed opened hole was right where the seeds were still bundled together and this particular rabbit knew how to get the most energy without dealing with those annoying white parachute fibers.
On that same walk, there were many fox tracks also observed... cue the suspenseful music. And sure enough a couple days later, a neighbour emailed a couple photos of a fox-killed cottontail in his yard. That's the balance of Nature hard at work.
The high numbers of cottontails this year should give you ample opportunity to observe one of our common but often hard to see natural neighbours. Next year, it may not be so easy, as these population swings happen rather rapidly.
David’s Notebook: Days are getting longer! Days are getting longer! One of Nature's wonderful 'gifts'. Just a few more weeks to a spring thaw? Not that I'm anxious or anything.
© 2018 David J. Hawke