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North Words - Deer, rabbits and hares find unusual ways to feed and protect themselves in winter

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When I lived in Fisher, Minn., just a few miles east of East Grand Forks alongside U.S. Highway 2, I remember one winter afternoon as I sat and watched from my apartment's living room window a dozen deer in the middle of the adjacent farm field pawing through a skiff of snow.

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A lush crop of sugar beets had once graced the acreage during the growing season, but at the time, in the dead of winter, deer were relegated to scratching through frozen Red River Valley dirt to find residual bits of beets or, if lucky, a whole beet that had escaped being lifted during harvest time.

I marveled at the spectacle of these animals with their mouths agape breaking apart frozen beets with the force of their jaws and the cutting edges of their molars.

Chunks of beet flesh often fell out of their mouths as they chewed and otherwise manipulated the oversized vegetables inside their barely large enough mouths.

As interesting to me were the much smaller white-tailed jackrabbits milling about the area where the small band of deer were foraging.

The white-colored rabbits were busily taking advantage of the beets that the deer were unearthing and breaking apart by quickly consuming what they could get to before the deer did.

I had witnessed a type of symbiotic relationship -- commensalism -- where one organism benefits and one does not benefit, but is unharmed.

Indeed, Minnesota's three species of rabbits and hares, equipped with powerful hind legs that propel their slender bodies in great leaps and speedy bursts, are unique and interesting animals of the forests and prairie.

Cottontail rabbits are those favorite little wild bunnies with the white cotton-ball tail. Of the three rabbit-like species that call Minnesota's prairies and woodlands home, the cottontail rabbit is our only rabbit. The other two species, the white-tailed jackrabbit and snowshoe hare, are hares.

All rabbits are altricial; that is, they're born blind, helpless and hairless inside a fur-lined nest. In contrast, hares, which include jackrabbits and snowshoes, are born with a full fur coat and are able to leave the nest in just a few hours after birth. Hares, then, are precocial.

It's no wonder there's confusion. A jackrabbit isn't really a rabbit, though its

common name clearly says it is. This illustrates another reason to be wary of common names. Latin scientific names, however, clearly separate the two groups. Minnesota hares belong to the genus Lepus, whereas the cottontail rabbit are of the genus Sylvilagus.

Cottontails are not very large. Measuring about 12 to 16 inches in length and

weighing about two to three pounds, cottontail rabbits are the smallest of the three

species. Able to run and leap with speed and grace, cottontails also have the advantage of being intimately familiar with every square inch of their respective territories -- a huge benefit when eluding predators.

And if cornered by a would-be predator or forced to protect its offspring, the little rabbits are fearless and will readily use their powerful back legs and large feet as weapons against aggressors.

Other differences between rabbits and hares are physical in nature. Rabbit ears are shorter in comparison to the ears of hares, and hares' legs are longer than rabbits. And, most notably, especially during the long winters of Minnesota, hares turn white in color, while the cottontail remains its usual brownish above and white below.

All three species rely on a couple of defenses when outsmarting predators. Running and leaping and zigging and zagging are obvious maneuvers, but what often works best is to simply lie still and not move a muscle. Whether it's summer or winter, seeing a motionless rabbit or hare is surprisingly difficult even when you know they're there.

Even so, when remaining motionless won't do the trick, running often will.

Cottontails can run up to 20 miles per hour in a zigzag way that confounds predators.

Jackrabbits, on the other hand, can sprint up to 45 miles per hour and leap up to 20 feet.

Snowshoes can run nearly as fast as jackrabbits, while relying heavily on the knowledge of its home range and various runways.

Along with these defenses, rabbits and hares have extremely acute vision and hearing. With large and bulging eyes set on the sides of their heads, these animals can see danger in a near 360-degree range.

And those long ears? They serve as noise amplifiers that intensify sounds of approaching danger. Long ears also help to dissipate body heat during hot summer days.

Rabbits and hares are strict vegetarians. Foraging on a wide variety of plant materials, including most parts of green plants, seeds, shrubs and bark, rabbits and hares also indulge in a very unusual feeding behavior called coprophagy -- the practice of eating their own droppings.

Rabbits and hares have the exceptional ability to select the most nutritional of their pellets and recycle these important nutrients and intestinal bacteria.

Chances are good that a cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, or white-tailed jackrabbit lives closer to your home than you think.

In the coming weeks, keep a watch for movements in forests and fields, or look for their telltale tracks, droppings, and runways in the snow.

These signs and more will await you as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at bklemek@yahoo.com)

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