the soil is loose and dry, and where brushwood offers shelter. Rabbits are valued as game by hunters, as food and for their fur, but they often are pests to farmers whose trees and crops they destroy.
The primary wild rabbit of North America is the cottontail, of the genus Sylvilagus, and of which there are two species – the New England or Appalachian cottontail, and the eastern cottontail. Its name is derived from the white undersurface of its short tail, which resembles a puff of cotton. The cottontail is noted for remaining motionless to avoid notice when it senses danger. The rabbit, which swims and includes among its cousins the so-called “cane-brake”, “marsh” or “swamp” rabbit of the Southern wetlands, also evades enemies by plunging into lakes or streams.
Combined, the cottontails range east of the Rocky Mountains from southern Canada south to eastern Mexico and points south. Another population is found in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The eastern cottontail is more abundant and is expanding its range, while the New England cottontail's range is diminishing.
The cottontail rabbit is a somewhat stocky animal with large hind feet, long ears, and a short, fluffy tail that resembles a cotton ball. Its long, coarse coat varies in color from reddish-brown to a black or grayish-brown. The underparts are white. The New England cottontail and the eastern cottontail are almost identical in appearance, except for a slight variation in color. About half of the eastern cottontail population show a white, star-like shape on the forehead while none of the New England cottontails exhibit this trait.
Cottontails have very keen sight and hearing. When danger is sensed, the animal will usually freeze in place until the danger has passed, but they will flush readily if approached too closely. Rabbits normally move slowly in short hops or jumps, but when frightened they can achieve speeds up to 18 miles per hour over a short distance. They often zigzag to confuse a pursuing predator.
Cottontails prefer to live and forage among the edges of open fields and meadows, areas of dense high grass, in wood thickets, along fencerows, forest edges and along the borders of marshy areas. Dense forests and thickets attract cottontails at high elevations, especially birch/red maple forests, hemlock and rhododendron areas within oak-hickory forests, blueberries, mountain laurel and coniferous forests. It has been cited, too, that they prefer 6- to 7-year-old clearcuts and old overgrown farmsteads and pockets of heath-conifer habitat.
It is largely nocturnal, active from early evening to late morning. In summer, cottontails feed almost entirely on tender grasses and herbs; crops such as peas, beans, and lettuce are also eaten. In winter, bark, twigs and the buds of shrubs and young trees are eaten.
The varying hare -- Lepus americanus -- known popularly as the snowshoe rabbit, is distributed widely throughout North America, from throughout Canada, extending south along the Rockies and into the southern Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, but not into the Great Smoky Mountains.
Four subspecies of snowshoes are recognized among a common abundance of animals in good habitat. However, numbers of snowshoes are decreasing in areas of deforestation and increased white-tailed deer populations, which out-compete the snowshoe for many foods both animals prefer. It is a forest species, never far from dense woods including swamps and thickets. It is often found in dense second-growth forests of beech, birch, maple and young spruce. Rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets are its habitat in the southern mountains.
Snowshoes are so named because of its large rear feet, the toes of which can spread out to act like snowshoes. Their feet also have fur on the bottom, which protects them from the cold and gives them traction in the snow. During wintertime, the large track prints are conspicuous. The hind foot print is in front of the front foot print.
In summer, the hare’s coat is is rusty, grayish brown to dark brown in color; however the animal’s fur grows in wintertime -- except for a black edging on the ear tips -- lending it camouflage to thwart its predators. The change sometimes occurs in patchwork fashion and generally requires about two months, completed about the same time the ground is covered with lasting snow. In the Coast Range the winter color may change only to a patchwork of brown and white or it may not change at all.
The snowshoe hare is a strict vegetarian. It is usually active at night and in the early morning, when it feeds on juicy green plants and grass in summer, when among its preferred foods include the southern highbush cranberry,. During winter it is dependent mostly on shrubs and trees and is fond of aspen, willow, alder and maple. It eats the bark, twigs and often the needles of conifers, including fir, cedar, hemlock, spruce and
Another hare, Lepus californicus, known as the jackrabbit, is found in the western parts of the United States and Canada. Known for its speed, both white-tailed and black-tailed jackrabbits can run up to 45 miles per hour and can bound 15 to 20 feet in a single jump. Because this species competes with grazing animals for food, livestock owners in the western US have undertaken great drives to reduce the hare population, which has been estimated to be as high as 8,000 per square mile. Jackrabbits may carry tularemia, a bacterial disease that can be fatal to humans.
Long ears – as much as 5 inches long -- big feet, long hind legs and brushy tails characterize the jackrabbit. Its fur is typically a dark buffed color or silver that is peppered with black. A prominent black stripe runs from its rump to the top of its tail. Its distinctive long ears, which are tipped with black, helps keep them cool as blood passes into their ears and is cooled by the breeze before passing into other parts of their bodies. The soles of a jackrabbit's feet are covered with fur. This cushions their feet on hard ground and insulates them from the scorching heat of the desert sand. The jackrabbit's eyes are situated on the sides of its head, giving it all-around vision that enables it to spot danger coming from any direction.
Jackrabbits live in the extreme environments of the desert, high plains and chaparral, where temperatures are hot during the day and cold at night, and there isn't a lot of rain. They can be found on brushlands, prairies, pasturelands and meadows -- open areas where they can see predators coming. An individual jackrabbit ranges across about 10 acres.
Under the cover of darkness – from dusk to dawn – jackrabbits forage with relative security but they always seem to be on their guard. Alert to their surroundings and watchful of potential threats, they rely on their speed to elude predators, and, if they are lucky enough to escape, they will flash the white underside of their tail to alert other jackrabbits in the area.
Jackrabbits are strict vegetarians. During the spring and summer, they feed on clover, alfalfa and other abundant greens. During the lean fall and winter months, they subsist on woody and dried vegetation. They will also eat sagebrush and cacti. Jackrabbits rarely have to drink, ingesting most of their water from the plants they eat. Fifteen jackrabbits can eat as much as one full-grown cow in one day. Occasionally, they raid crops and flowerbeds and cause extensive damage.
Jackrabbits are herbivores. They leave their resting spots at dusk to feed on tough grasses, leaves, and twigs. They will also eat sagebrush and cacti. They only come out at night to feed. Fifteen jackrabbits can eat as much as one full-grown cow in one day. Occasionally, they raid crops and cause extensive damage.
Other protective adaptations include keen senses of smell, eyesight, and hearing. And they depend heavily on shrubs such as sagebrush for protective cover. Jackrabbits are the principal prey of golden eagles and are an important food source for coyotes, common ravens, the great horned owl, long-eared owl, barn owl, ferruginous hawk, Swainson’s hawk and red-tailed hawk. Humans, too, are a predator of jackrabbit.
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