Posts Tagged ‘rabbits’

A Hoppin’ Year for the Snowshoe Hare

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Monday, November 19th, 2012
Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare Tracks © Lisa Densmore

A Hoppin’ Year for the Snowshoe Hare by Lisa Densmore

Location: Snowcrest Mountains, MT

It’s a banner year for snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) in Montana’s Snowcrest Mountains. For the last three years, I’ve spent the third week in October in this rugged region of the northern Rockies where elk, deer and moose commonly wander the boreal and montane forests. The snowshoe hares are there, too, but a rare sight. Not this year! While hiking the high country, I twice pushed a snowshoe hare out of his twiggy cover while plopping myself on a random log to rest. It was fun to see them in their newly acquired white phase.

Snowshoe hares are well-known for their rusty brown summer coat which changes to white in the winter. Its ears, which are shorter than other hare species, are another trademark.

Though technically mid-fall, the Snowcrests were already covered with a half-foot of snow and it snowed every day while I was there. While the ungulates kept a low profile, leaving a few rubs on the trees, frozen scat and a depression or two in the snow where they bedded for the day, snowshoe hares trampled the open forests of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine literally everywhere. Their tracks were easy to identify with their large hind feet and small forefeet.

Snowshoe Hare © NatureShare

It’s their hind feet which give them their common moniker. Shaped like miniature snowshoes, their oversized back paws allow this shy yet active hopper to stay on top of the snow, a helpful skill when a lynx or a wolf fancies it for dinner. Not surprising, its feet have fur top and bottom to protect them from wintery temperatures. Sometimes I wish my feet had a little more fur on them. My trip to the Snowcrest Range was this year’s first brush with sub-freezing temperatures. Even with toe warmers, my feet were cold.

Fast Jack

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Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

While pulling stray shoots of grass from the flowers, I spot another stray in my yard. An errant White-tailed Jackrabbit sits huddled in the swath of tall grass where my lawn meets a vacant lot. I race inside for my camera, then sidle slowly toward my visitor, shutter clicking. He allows a few photos, and then pops to his feet, seemingly more bored than alarmed. In a few bounds, he’s found a new spot to lounge across the lot. I marvel at how light on its feet is Mr. Jackrabbit.

White-tailed Jackrabbit by Jack Ballard

The fact is, White-tailed Jackrabbits are incredible athletes. Jackrabbits are amazingly fast. Covering up to twenty feet in a single leap, they can spurt to 45 miles per hour over short distances. In addition to their speed, jackrabbits can dart and change course without breaking stride, allowing them to elude predators that might actually hold an edge in sustained speed.

One warm spring day I was hiking on my family’s ranch, cheerfully accompanied by Addie, an adopted greyhound. In the center of a wide basin, a big jackrabbit burst from its napping spot at the base of a bushy sagebrush. Centuries of breeding for just such moments overtook the hound and she lunged in pursuit.

Greyhounds can hit 50 miles per hour on the track. What chance, I thought, does this seven pound jackrabbit have with seventy pounds of brindle lightening on its fluffy, white tail? As I watched spellbound, I realized the streaking hare knew exactly how to handle the hound. Each time the dog closed in, the jackrabbit darted off-course, forcing the greyhound to slow its pursuit and change direction. In a few minutes, the prey crested a ridge and the crestfallen predator came trotting my way with its tongue on its ankles.

White-tailed Jackrabbit by Jack Ballard

Given the jackrabbit’s peculiar adaptations for fleet coursing over open terrain, I shouldn’t have been surprised that it outran my retired racer. From head to toe, jacks are created to run. Their skulls are pocked with cavities which make them lighter. Long, powerful hind legs, with specially fused bones, allow them to exert maximum force to their feet and cover incredible distance with each stride. In addition, jackrabbits have a small, lightweight collarbone that facilitates not only speed, but agility as well.

Despite their prowess as sprinters, the life expectancy of jackrabbits is somewhere under five years. Although an individual may successfully elude predators in a dozen instances, eventually the odds turn hostile to the hare. I hope my visitor beats the clock.

The Mountain Cottontail

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Friday, December 30th, 2011

Mountain Cottontail by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

Whenever my sweetheart slams on the brakes, I instinctively reach for my camera. A large animal or raptor deserving of a photo is often the reason for the sudden stop. The other day, as we drove through our neighborhood toward our house, my seatbelt suddenly tightened across my chest, but I couldn’t see any big beasts.

“Over by the red osier,” he said, pointing to a small clump of leafless reddish twigs that sprouted in a haphazard clump from the snow.

I peered intently at the clump catching a slight movement its base. A cute little mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii) crouched quietly, twitching its nose now and again as it peered cautiously in my direction. Sometimes called “Nuttall’s cottontail”, mountain cottontails have rounded, black-tipped ears with fur inside, and tweedy brown fur. The underside of their tail is white. Mountain cottontails also have a distinctive light brown patch on the back of the head and neck, which, along with their smaller size, is a good way to tell them apart from snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus).

Mountain cottontails are a Rocky Mountain rabbit. Their range begins at the foothills on the eastern side of the Rockies and extends west to the eastern side of Sierra Nevadas. They mainly eat grasses which is probably why I often spot them munching contently near my house. I live near a golf course that used to be ranchland. There are still fields around the houses and fairways. The landscaping shrubs give these little bunnies cover from predators and provide another food source when the snow buries the grass. Cottontails spend over 50% of their waking hours eating!

Click. Click. This mountain cottontail was the perfect photo model, still as stone, though I’m sure he was hoping if he didn’t move we would miss him. Perhaps we would have if he were perched on a pile of sticks or beside a large rock, but not against the white snow. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t turn white like his jack rabbit cousin.

When Is A Rabbit Not A Rabbit?

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Friday, January 15th, 2010

Common names can be descriptive—just don’t take them too literally concerning taxonomy. We have the prairie dog that is not a dog (it’s a squirrel), the ring-tailed cat that’s not a cat (it’s cousin to the raccoon), and the jackrabbit that’s not a rabbit (it’s a hare).

At least rabbits and hares are in the same order (Lagomorpha) and family (Leporidae), but there are significant differences between them. True rabbits, such as our native cottontails, are altricial. The newborns, called kits, are naked, blind, and helpless (some assembly required?). Hares are precocial. Their young, called leverets, are born fully furred, eyes open, and ready to go.

In southeastern Arizona, we have two species of jackrabbits, the Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, and the Antelope Jackrabbit, Lepus alleni (not to be confused with the mythical Jackalope, perhaps the subject of a future blog). Both species have huge ears, helpful both in detecting any approaching predator and in radiating excess body heat as blood passes through the fine network of blood vessels.

When alarmed, a jackrabbit will first try to disappear, crouching with its enormous ears laid down along its back. Long legs can propel jackrabbits at forty to forty-five miles per hour in leaps that cover close to twenty feet. The Antelope Jackrabbit has an additional weapon in its anti-predator arsenal. When it erects the hair along its flanks, the white underfur flickers in an optical effect that may serve to startle or confuse a pursuer. Few terrestrial predators can catch a jackrabbit, but Golden Eagles and some Ferruginous Hawks seem to specialize in hunting them. Cars are one of their deadliest enemies, taking a rising toll as more roads intrude into their desert and grassland habitats.

Call them rabbit or hare, jackrabbits are tough survivors—icons of the Old West who continue to make their way in the New West.