I will never forget the first time I saw a jackrabbit. At the time I was no more than 8 or 9 years old. It happened during my first squirrel hunt as my father and I scoured grandfather Klemek's oak filled woodland. The animal sprang from a brush pile like a kangaroo and bounded through the sparse woods while dodging and jumping in incredibly wild and leggy leaps. The big jackrabbit quickly disappeared over a knoll and I never saw it again.
Such is the case with rabbits and hares. Equipped with powerful hind legs that propel their slender bodies in great leaps and speedy bursts, Minnesota's three species of rabbits and hares are unique and interesting animals of the forests and prairie.
Cottontail rabbits are those favorite little wild bunnies with the white cotton-ball tail. Of the three rabbit-like species that call Minnesota's prairies and woodlands home, the cottontail rabbit is our only rabbit. The other two species, the white-tailed jackrabbit and snowshoe hare, are hares.
All rabbits are altricial; that is, they're born blind, helpless and hairless inside a fur-lined nest. In contrast, hares, which include jackrabbits and snowshoes, are born with a full fur coat and are able to leave the nest in just a few hours after birth. Hares, then, are precocial.
It's no wonder there's confusion. A jackrabbit isn't really a rabbit, though its common name clearly says it is. This illustrates another reason to be wary of common names. Latin scientific names, however, clearly separate the two groups. Minnesota hares belong to the genus Lepus, whereas cottontail rabbits are of the genus Sylvilagus. Collectively, rabbits and hares belong to the same mammalian order, Lagomorpha, and the family Leporidae.
Cottontails are not very large. Measuring about 12-16 inches in length and weighing about 2-3 pounds, cottontail rabbits are the smallest of the three Lagomorphs. Able to run and leap with speed and grace, cottontails also have the advantage of being intimately familiar with every square inch of their respective territories - a huge benefit when eluding predators. And if cornered by a would-be predator or forced to protect its offspring, the little rabbits are fearless and will readily use their powerful back legs and large feet as weapons against aggressors.
Other differences between rabbits and hares are physical in nature. Rabbit ears are shorter in comparison to the ears of hares, and hares' legs are longer than rabbits'. And, most notably, especially during the long winters of Minnesota, hares turn white in color while the cottontail remains its usual brownish above and white below.
All three lagomorphs rely on a couple of defenses when outsmarting predators. Running and leaping and zigging and zagging are obvious maneuvers, but what often works best is to simply lie still and not move a muscle. Whether it's summer or winter, seeing a motionless rabbit or hare is surprisingly difficult even when you know it's there.
Even so, when remaining motionless won't do the trick, running often will. Cottontails can run up to 20 miles per hour in a zigzag way that confounds predators. Jackrabbits, on the other hand, can sprint up to 45 miles per hour and leap up to 20 feet. Snowshoes can run nearly as fast as jackrabbits while relying heavily on the knowledge of its home range and various runways.
Along with these defenses, rabbits and hares have extremely acute vision and hearing. With large and bulging eyes set on the sides of their heads, these animals can see danger in a near 360-degree range. And those long ears? They serve as noise amplifiers that intensify sounds of approaching danger. Long ears also help to dissipate body heat during hot summer days.
Rabbits and hares are strict vegetarians. Foraging on a wide variety of plant materials including most parts of green plants, seeds, shrubs and bark, rabbits and hares also indulge in a very unusual feeding behavior called coprophagy - the practice of eating their own droppings. Rabbits and hares have the exceptional ability to select the most nutritional of their pellets and recycle these important nutrients and intestinal bacteria.
In the springtime, rabbits and hares give birth to their young. Female cottontail rabbits, or does as they are also called, will dig small bowl-like depressions in the ground in preparation for their little ones. The doe will also pluck fur from herself that will serve as a blanket to protect her youngsters from the elements and predators. As many as five litters may be born to the same female in just one season.
Chances are good that a cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, or white-tailed jackrabbit lives closer to your home than you think. In the coming weeks, keep a watch for movements in the brush or grass, or look for their telltale tracks and runways in the snow. These signs and more await us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.