A Natural View: The Art of Splitting Hares

Terry Sprague

European Hare Study by Lily Seika Jones.
[This article ran in the March/April 2010 issue of The SCOOP.]

There are cottontail rabbits at my bird feeding station again this winter, and they aren't here to drop off Easter eggs on April 4th. They appear in the darkness of early morning only moments after I sprinkle bird feed on the ground beneath the feeders, later they hop brazenly in front of me after I return from my early morning walk. The population seems to be returning once again; the evidence is the number of hit and runs along our highways. And with them has been seen the occasional jackrabbit, who has also returned.

Where did they all go? Best not ask that as you will be bombarded with, “Wolves got 'em all.” It seems to be the logical explanation when two plus two equals three and a half. However, far more enters the equation than the lack of, or abundance of predators. In the case of the jackrabbit, we have to wonder if we will ever see the high numbers we once remember spotting as they lumbered across the farm fields.

We only have to look across our huge open fields that now resemble those in southwestern Ontario, and we soon understand, and subsequently lament, that we may never see those days again. The reason is found at the edge of the field, however far in the distance that may be. Fence bottoms and old rail fences are being removed, and when replaced at all, end up being strands of electric fence. This uprooting of fence bottoms, scrub growth and fall cultivation has hurt the jackrabbit population. As in the case of dwindling populations of certain species of birds, it has less to do with pesticides, overhunting, and all the other things we like to blame declining populations on, and more to do with shrinking habitat and a burgeoning human population. These wildlife species have diminished in direct proportion to the shrinking of their habitat. Whether the scattering of small, abandoned, overgrown farms will be enough to see the population return to its former glory remains to be seen.

We call them jackrabbits, but technically, they are actually hares — European hares, to be exact, which are a bit different from rabbits. Confusion understandably reigns when it comes to distinguishing rabbits from hares. Both have the typical bobbed tail and eyes set on the sides of their heads which enable them to see behind them. The confusion is compounded by many species having popular names that can be misleading. We have the jackrabbit, and we have the snowshoe rabbit, (more common in northern coniferous regions), both of which are not rabbits but hares. Snowshoe rabbits grow long matted hair between their toes to help tread the snow, hence their name. There is also the Arctic hare, but we are not apt to see this species around here anytime soon. They are restricted to the Arctic region of Canada, beyond the tree line. One, seen in 1966 at Fort Severn, can only be regarded as accidental.

The anatomical differences between hares and rabbits are slight. Generally, hares are larger than rabbits, and have longer legs and ears. The best way to tell is by examining their young. Baby rabbits, such as cottontails, called kits or kittens, are born naked, blind and unable to move around. Newborn hares, called leverets, come into the world with their eyes wide open, a full coat of fur, and are off and hopping within a few hours after they are born.

Early accounts of the mammals of our area state that the snowshoe hare (also sometimes referred to as the varying hare) was once a common resident here, but settlement with the progressive reduction of woodlands diminished its preferred habitat. From the 1930s on, we really don't know what direction the population took, although we certainly do not encounter them here as we once did. However, I do see them and their foot tracks, occasionally at the H.R. Frink Centre near Plainfield, where their preferred habitat of coniferous cover is more prevalent.

But hopping back for a moment to jackrabbits, or, we should say, European hares — why are they so named? Jackrabbits were named for their ears, which initially caused some people to refer to them as “jackass rabbits.” The writer Mark Twain brought this name to fame by using it in his book of western adventure, Roughing It. The name was later shortened to jackrabbit. It is not native to Ontario, and the jackrabbits or European hares we have in the province now are a result of the seven does and two bucks which escaped captivity near Brantford in 1912 after being brought here from Germany.  They spread very quickly, reaching Niagara Falls in 1921, Toronto four years later, and made it to Kingston by 1948. Interestingly, they did not invade areas in the Canadian Shield region, although they did make it to Ottawa in 1961 by crossing the narrow corridor of the Shield east of Kingston.

Down where I live, in Prince Edward County, they first appeared in 1936, a time-lapse of 24 years which translates into a dispersal rate of approximately 13 km per year from the time they first showed up at Brantford. Even the eastern cottontail is a relative newcomer to the Ontario scene, and while common in the eastern United States, it only recently began to make its way into southern Ontario. Investigations of pre-Columbian Indian village sites in southern Ontario indicate that the cottontail was a former resident, but was absent during European settlement, reappearing in the late 1800s, and making its way to Kingston by 1925.

So, there you have it. We have only three “rabbits”, but only the cottontail is a true rabbit. The snowshoe and the jackrabbit are actually hares. Okay, we now know what Peter Cottontail is, because his name says it all, but is Bugs Bunny a rabbit or a hare?  Is he a “waskal wabbit” or is he, in fact, a hare? Something to ponder this weekend.