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
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
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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Update: June 2012