The Wild Side: Cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares
It is most likely that we only have two native “lagomorphs,” or members of the order Lagomorpha, in Wisconsin: the snowshoe hare and the eastern cottontail rabbit. The cottontail rabbit is common across the entire state. It prefers areas that have shelter in close proximity to open spaces where it can feed on succulent green plants. Cottontails do not change color, keeping basically a brown pelt year round. They start breeding in late winter or early spring and have two or three litters of young, each litter having three or four leverets (baby bunnies). This means if you have one female rabbit in your yard in February, you could have over a dozen by October. Furthermore, some of the first young born in spring may reach sexual maturity before winter, meaning they could birth a litter in their first year of life.
The young are hairless and blind, lying in a nest that is nothing more than a shallow depression in the grass for about two weeks. After that time, they are covered with hair, their eyes are open and they are able to move about. During those first two weeks they are very defenseless, especially against lawnmowers, cats and dogs in urban and rural settings.
In the winter, the rabbit changes its eating habits, chewing on the bark or soft twigs of any trees or shrubs it can find. I have a pear tree that rabbits love to chew on, and every winter I try to put something around the trunk to keep them from girdling the tree, which would ultimately kill it.
Their movements are restricted to early morning and early evening. I would attribute this to the fact that they are highly visible when the ground is covered with snow, and almost anything that eats meat will eat a rabbit. Even at night, they are preyed upon by owls, fox, coyote, weasels, and other predators.
Snowshoe hares are far larger than cottontails, growing up to 20 inches long and weighing 3 to 4 pounds. Supposedly, it is referred to as the varying hare for its color variations, from a brownish color in the summer to a bright white in the winter. The snowshoe in its name refers to the large hind foot, which spreads wide at the toes. These large, hairy feet help the hare stay on top of the snow and move about easily to feed and evade predators. Snowshoes live in areas of mixed forest, preferring some kind of evergreen component like balsams or hemlock. They feed on twigs and bark, and are highly reliant on hiding under overhead cover to avoid predators. Consequently, their best habitat will have deadfalls, thick brush or some other tangled ground cover to hide them.
Snowshoes also have three to four litters of three to four leverets a season, but their young are precocious, meaning they are born with eyes open and covered with fur. They are able to hop and walk within 24 hours of birth.
Cottontails are more tolerant of humans and other rabbits than hares, making them more likely to co-exist with us in our yards. Your best bet to see either in the wild would be to go out at sunrise or sunset, maybe in an area where a logging road or woods trail travels the edge of an opening in the forest, near a swamp, or on the edge of a timber sale that has some tree regeneration. Both species are legal to hunt with a small game license; cottontail closes the end of February and snowshoe is open year round. They can be fun to hunt with or without dogs, and offer a great opportunity for teaching youth to hunt. Each year, more than 30,000 rabbit hunters harvest about 100,000 cottontails, making it one of the most important small game species in the state.
Remember, if you want to construct brush piles to attract more rabbits, instructions are available at dnr.wi.gov, key word “rabbitat.”
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.