|“The March hare …as this is May, it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”
|-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The European brown hare’s courtship antics gave rise to the saying “as mad as a March hare.” Of course, our own hares can go a bit “crazy” in spring, as well.
Here in Canyon Country there are several representatives of the Hare or Rabbit Family (Leporidae): black-tailed jackrabbit, desert cottontail, Nuttall’s or mountain cottontail and the American pika. The jackrabbit and cottontails may be observed year-round, but the mountain dwelling pika gets cut off from the visiting public in winter due to snow.
Jackrabbits, desert cottontails and other leporids (from the Latin name “lepus” meaning “a hare”) are key species in the cycle of predator-prey. A vast majority of large predators: kit foxes, coyotes, bobcats, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, great horned owls, gopher snakes and rattlesnakes prey on rabbits and hares. Though a full grown jackrabbit might be too much for a gopher snake to digest, the constrictors could prey on the smaller cottontails or young rabbits known as “leverets”.
Even the Ancestral Puebloans hunted the jackrabbits and cottontails, herding or rounding them up into woven nets or corrals. They ate the rabbits and sewed the skins into warm blankets; so much for the concept of the lucky rabbit’s foot.
Desert cottontails are one of the commonest mammals observed in the local National Parks. These animals feed on a variety of plant material and woody shrubs, and even consume their own fecal pellets. Known as caprophagy, cottontails ingest the soft, green pellets made up of partially digested vegetation to obtain additional nutrients. The harder, brown pellets contain fully digested material.
Black-tailed jackrabbits, with their mule-like ears, are more nocturnal than cottontails. Drive down a dirt road at night and your headlights will often illuminate one of these hares as they zip and dart down the road like a halfback in the open field dogging tacklers. Why they don’t just run off to the side is one of the great “Why?” questions.
One other difference between cottontails and jackrabbits is that the jackrabbit’s young are born with their eyes wide open and are ready to leave the scrape soon after birth. Cottontails take several weeks to develop before they depart from their nest. A female rabbit may have 2 to 6 litters a year with 1 to 8 young per litter; a population explosion kept in check by predators.
Although the American pika is also a member of the Hare Family, it more resembles a guinea pig than a rabbit. Unlike their grassland dwelling cousins, the pika inhabits rock slides, talus slopes and mine rubble at higher elevations. From these rocky haunts, a pika will make numerous foraging trips out into nearby meadows to feast on grasses and herbs. And unlike their leaping cousins, the pika caches plant material in hay piles for winter use.
Even though the rabbits and pikas aren’t considered “charismatic megafauna,” these creatures are interesting and commonly observed representatives of desert wildlife. In some areas, the abundance of their tracks betrays their presence. So as the calendar flips to March, let the madness begin.