Rabbits are one of those animals you think you know a lot about because you’ve read, heard and seen so much about them.
There’s Peter, Roger and Br’er Rabbit and the rabbit named Rabbit in Pooh’s Hundred Acre Woods, and there’s also the Easter Bunny and his cousins Bugs and Thumper. And there’s Reese Whitherspoon’s Legally Blonde bunny outfit, which was highly reminiscent of the outfits commonly seen in Hugh Hefner’s myriad bunny harems. Don’t forget the rabbit test, which, if it doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, means you probably didn’t put in enough rubbing time on your lucky rabbit’s foot.
The point is: Rabbits play an outsized role in human culture.
But how much do you know about the real rabbits living among us?
In the Lake Martin area, rabbits means two species: the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit or the Swamp Rabbit. In southern Alabama you might run across Marsh Rabbit, and if you add about 2,000 feet of elevation, you could be lucky enough to find an Appalachian Cottontail. But here around Lake Martin, you’re much more likely to see Eastern Cottontails, which is the most common rabbit in our area, so today that’s our bunny.
Eastern Cottontails are relatively small, weighing up to 4 pounds and measuring up to 19 inches long. Our other native rabbit, the Swamp Rabbit, is about twice that size. Mature female cottontails are larger than males.
Their topside fur is reddish-brown with gray, black-tipped guard hairs, while their underside fur is white. Cottontails often sport a reddish patch of fur on the nape of their necks. The well-named “cottontail” is short, fluffy, with gray-brown on top and white – like a cotton ball – underneath. When alarmed, cottontails hold their tails up so that they flash white when the rabbits are running away.
Eastern Cottontails have large back legs for hopping and jumping and smaller front legs. These prey animals are always on the lookout for predators, and they have large eyes and ears that provide them excellent sight and hearing to help them avoid danger. Cottontails also have sharp incisor teeth that they use to cut and chew up plant material.
Rabbits were once included in the rodent order – which includes squirrels, porcupines, beavers, mice, rats, hamsters and prairie dogs – but today they share the Lagomorpha order with hares and pikas. The scientific name for this animal is Sylvilagus floridanus.
Eastern Cottontails are the most widespread of the 20 members of the Sylvilagus genus found in the Americas. Their range stretches from eastern Canada to northwest South America, and in the U.S., they are native from the Great Plains all the way to the eastern seaboard.
Male rabbits are called “bucks,” females are “does,” and juveniles are “kits.”
One of the facts you probably do know about rabbits is that bucks and does make a lot of kits. The breeding season in Alabama is from February to early fall. Does average three to four litters of kits a year, but they can have up to seven. Each litter contains one to 12 kits, with an average of five. Which means that, at the least, a doe could produce three baby bunnies a year; at the most, she could raise a family of 84. An average doe will have 15-20 kits a year. And the juveniles become sexually mature at the ripe old age of two to three months.
There’s a mating dance that gets things started, usually after dark. The buck chases a doe until she stops and confronts him. The two rabbits raise up on their hind legs and box with their front feet; then, one leaps into the air. This dance is repeated with each rabbit jumping before the pair mates.
Gestation is a little less than a month, and in the last days of pregnancy, the doe will build a nest of grass and fur, usually in some protected place like under a log or a bush or in a tall stand of grass.
The kits are born blind and are about the size of a thumb. They are nursed once or twice a day; and then, weaned after two or three weeks. About seven weeks after they are born, the baby bunnies will leave their nest, and that’s a good thing because by then, the pregnant-again doe usually needs it for her next litter.
These little rabbits are vegetarian eating machines, munching on wild grasses, clover, tender vegetation, wild fruits and berries and – if there’s an opportunity – garden vegetables. During the winter months, they will turn to twigs, buds and bark on low trees.
They tend to live on edges of different habitats and do best where there is a mixture of fields, tall ground cover, croplands, cutover forests, fencerows and un-mowed ditches.
Eastern Cottontails have several methods of avoiding predators, including freezing when they see motion or flushing by running to cover fast in a ziz-zag pattern. These rabbits have powerful legs and have been clocked running at 18 mph.
Most predators enjoy a meal of rabbit, including hawks and owls, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, domestic dogs and people. For this reason, the average lifespan of a wild Eastern Cottontail is short, about three years.
One truism you may remember from the Br’er Rabbit stories – there’s no place a cottontail would rather be than a big patch of briars, especially if they’re full of blackberries.