Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Rabbits and Hares
Nature Bulletin No. 473-A   December 2, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

RABBITS AND HARES
The Cottontail Rabbit, with his long hind legs, big ears and a tuft of cottony white fuzz underneath his bobtail, is proverbial for his timidity, speed and dodging tactics; for his skill at concealment by camouflage: and for his prolific, rapidly growing families. He is our most common and best known mammal. American folklore and literature are filled with jingles, songs, cartoons, old sayings and children's stories about him. B'rer Rabbit in the Uncle Remus tales, Molly Cottontail, Bugs Bunny, the Easter rabbit, and the Hare and the Tortoise, are famous animal characters.

The two names -- "rabbit" and "hare" -- have been badly confused in this country. The true rabbits include the cottontail, the swamp rabbit, and all domestic rabbits, even though some of the latter are called such names as Belgian "hare". Their young are born naked, blind and helpless. Jack rabbits and snowshoe rabbits are true hares -- not rabbits -- born with their eyes open, well-covered with fur, and active.

Cottontails, although they differ somewhat in appearance from region to region, are found from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Southern Canada to South America. In Illinois they abound in each of the 102 counties: in every field, fence row, thicket and woodland border. After a snow, their unmistakable tracks are seen in every town and suburb. We find them in Chicago.

In spite of the fact that more cottontails are shot for food and sport than any other game animal, man is their best friend. By killing off their natural enemies -- foxes, coyotes, wolves, hawks and owls: and by planting wide areas with their favorite foods such as clover, alfalfa, grains and vegetables -- man has tilted the balance of nature in the cottontail's favor. They are much more plentiful now than when the first settlers came.

Beginning in March or April, and before the end of summer, the adult female cottontail produces 3 or 4 litters with 4 to 7 young in each. A litter is always hidden in a shallow depression, lined with grass and her belly fur, until they are about two weeks old. By that time their eyes are open, they are well-furred, and are ready to leave the nest to begin nibbling green stuff. They reach their mature weight, 2 pounds or more, by the age of six months.

In early autumn, over most of the Middle West, cottontail populations average about one rabbit on each two or three acres of land. In some years and in some regions they may become ten times as numerous. During the hunting season, about half of the rabbits are often killed without any noticeable effect upon the rabbit crop in the following year. The total number bagged annually in the United States is estimated to be from 30 to 50 millions.

The only other wild native rabbit in Illinois is the Swamp Rabbit, a close relative of the cottontail but larger and with short sleek fur. It is a good swimmer and lives in the wetlands of the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. The only wild native hare is the White-tailed Jack Rabbit occasionally found in northwestern Illinois. The big-footed Snowshoe Rabbit, or Varying Hare -- whose fur turns white in winter -- was last recorded in the Chicago region when several were shot in 1824. The San Juan Rabbit, the domesticated European species now gone wild, has been released recently in many states. All of us are alarmed because this is the rabbit that wreaked such havoc in Australia, New Zealand, and islands in our Puget Sound.

We know a man who skinned two rabbits and never touched a hare.


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