Minnesota is home to three species of rabbits and hares — cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, and the white-tailed jackrabbit, which is really a hare, not a rabbit.
Equipped with powerful hind legs that propel their slender bodies in great leaps and speedy bursts, these unique and interesting animals can be found throughout Minnesota’s forests and prairies, although not everywhere together.
In recent years there has been a surge of cottontails around my rural home in Becida. It’s not uncommon anymore for me to see a half dozen or more of these docile little bunnies sitting placidly around my homestead while I go about my business, often walking within mere feet from them without their so much as moving out of the way.
White-tailed jackrabbits, on the other hand, is a hare I haven’t seen since my college days attending UND and working at the Audubon Center near Warren. There in the Red River valley, jackrabbits were quite common in the open landscape. In fact, I frequently observed deer in the wintertime before the snow was too deep feeding in harvested sugar beet fields along with jackrabbits.
Snowshoe hares are hares of the forest. Locally abundant some years, not so numerous other years, snowshoe hares experience population booms and busts. A couple of weeks ago while deer hunting in Kittson County, I was amazed at the amount of snowshoe hare sign in the snow. Nearly everywhere I went I encountered tracks and droppings. Mostly white in color by late November, it was difficult spotting the hares, but I did observe several nonetheless. Snowshoe hares typically flush when startled, yet they will usually only bound a few short hops before stopping to watch you walk by.
All cottontail rabbits are born inside of neat, fur-lined ground nests with their eyes shut and are helpless and hairless. In contrast, hares are born with a full fur coat and are able to leave the nest only a few hours after birth. Hares, therefore, are precocial.
All three species rely on a couple of defenses when outsmarting predators.
Running, leaping, and zigzagging as they go 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. Add to this, jackrabbits and snowshoes turn completely white in the wintertime.
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 can sprint up to 45 miles per hour and leap up to 20 feet. Snowshoe hares can run nearly as fast as jackrabbits while relying heavily on the knowledge of its home range, various runways, and their ability to run on top of soft snow.
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 that cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, or maybe even a white-tailed jackrabbit, lives close to your home or are not far away. These Minnesota mammals, strange looking as they are — long ears, long back legs, and twitching noses — are fascinating creatures of both forest and field as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.