Rabbits and Hares, Oh My!

Mar 1, 2018

How much do you know about Wisconsin’s rabbits and hares?

In this week’s episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist examines the lagomorphs of Wisconsin.

It is most likely that we only have two native “lagomorphs,” or members of the order Lagomorpha, in Wisconsin: the snowshoe hare and the eastern cottontail rabbit. The cottontail rabbit is common across the entire state. It prefers areas that have shelter in close proximity to open spaces where it can feed on succulent green plants. Cottontails do not change color, keeping basically a brown pelt year round. They start breeding in late winter or early spring, and have two or three litters of young, through the snow-free season, each litter having three or four leverets (baby bunnies). The young are hairless and blind, lying in a nest that is nothing more than a shallow depression in the grass for about two weeks. After that time, they are covered with hair, their eyes are open, and they are able to move about. In the winter there are no succulent green plants available for food, and the rabbits switch to chewing on the bark or soft twigs of any trees or shrubs they can find. Their movements are usually restricted to early morning and early evening. They are vulnerable and delicious, readily preyed upon by owls, fox, coyote, weasels, and other predators. As such, they will seek out areas of thick overhead cover.

Snowshoe hares are far larger than cottontails, growing up to twenty inches long and weighing 3-4 pounds. Supposedly it has been referred to as the varying hare for its color variations, from a brownish color in the summer to a bright white in the winter. The word “snowshoe” in its name refers to the conspicuously large hind foot, which spreads wide at the toes. These large, hairy feet help the hare stay on top of the snow and move about easily to feed and evade predators. Snowshoes live in areas of mixed forest, preferring some kind of evergreen component like balsams or hemlock. They feed on twigs and bark, and are highly reliant on hiding under overhead cover to avoid predators. Consequently, their best habitat will have deadfalls, thick brush or some other tangled ground cover to hide them. Snowshoes also have three to four litters of three to four leverets a season, but their young are precocious, meaning they are born with eyes open and covered with fur. They are able to hop and walk within 24 hours of birth.

So why did I start out saying it is most likely that we have two lagomorphs here in Wisconsin? Well, at one time Wisconsin was home to a population of somewhere around 50,000 – 75,000 white-tailed jack rabbits. There seems to be some debate about whether the jack rabbit was originally native to the state, whether in moved in from the western prairies, or whether supplemental undocumented stocking occurred. In 1947, Aldo Leopold wrote “The present jack rabbit population originated in part from plantings, but the bulk of it probably represents natural spread from the west.” A brief investigation on my part yielded no information about stocking jack rabbits here in Oneida or Vilas counties, but it appears there were some animals released in Marathon county in 1935, Lincoln county in 1941, and Oconto county in 1953.

The jackrabbit range covered the bottom ¾ of the state in 1944. I cannot speak to whether there are any appreciable jack rabbit populations in the state today; our state’s wildlife managers would have to supply the records. However, it has never occurred to me that we had that many individuals almost a hundred years ago. Perhaps they responded well to the great cutover and ensuing fires during that time. Jack rabbits have brown pelts in the summer, and white pelts in the winter, much like snowshoe hares. Is it possible that some jack rabbits have been misidentified or mistaken for snowshoe hares? If the only visible difference from a distance is relative size, it is certainly possible. And, if we truly have lost the jack rabbit in Wisconsin, how did such a common creature disappear so quickly? Alas, as is often the case, I may have supplied more questions than answers, but when a highly reproductive animal sees rapid decline, we can usually point to overharvest, disease, or a lack of quality habitat (which has ties to starvation, predation, loss of recruitment, and other factors). A combination of these factors could have dropped jack rabbit numbers below sustainable levels.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.