by Pat Jaquith
Over several years, I’ve been enjoying the company of small Mountain cottontails that have chosen to live near our home. Although I rarely see them when the ground is bare, I often see their tracks where I snowshoe or ski in winter. It’s their close proximity in winter that has given me the best sightings. I will share some pictures and tales of rabbit encounters in the following pages.
Rabbits are bounders. I guess Peter Cottontail was an exceptional bunny ‘hopping down the bunny trail.’ According to Mark Elbroch in Mammal Tracks and Sign, bounders’ hind feet move forward, beyond, and to either side of the front feet; hoppers’ hind feet land behind the front feet. I have rarely seen a Snowshoe rabbit, but their tracks are distinctive. Those big hind feet and impressive distance between bounds, even when they are not at top speed, are diagnostic.
Mountain cottontails are the same color year around. They have russet-colored hair on their feet and legs and in a patch on their nape. Their well-furred, black-rimed ears are winter-ready. Their underside and the underside of their little round tail are white. The rabbit pictured at left spent the winter in a brush pile. I saw two simultaneously outside that home. They had 6 different exits that they used nearly daily. The rabbit at right seemed to live in a hole in the retaining wall behind the garden. Both deer and rabbits browsed on plants that winter: the branches near the rabbit’s ear terminate in a ragged tear (deer! that have teeth on the lower jaw only). The rabbit fed on the plant at right (rabbits have both upper and lower teeth and make a clean snip).
I found a few pellets occasionally, but they were gone the next time I visited. Rabbits ‘recycle’ their pellets. Their high-fiber diet of cellulose is hard to digest; by the time it leaves their digestive tract, it still has many of the nutrients they need. Much like a ruminant that chews its cud, the rabbit consumes those pellets, giving them a second chance at extracting all the nutrients. This process is known as coprophagy.
Mountain cottontails are largely crepuscular. Although I saw them often in bright sun, they were very close to their holes. When they come out and make the those tracks, it’s usually at dusk or dawn. I frequently make a trek around the area on snowshoes getting my exercise and checking up on what has been going on when I was sleeping. A red fox also has a routine of checking on its territory nearly every night. Included on its route is the area where Mountain cottontails are living. I suspect the fox benefits from their presence; and by extension, our garden also benefits. Given their reproductive reputation, I might need to take lessons from Mr. McGregor in order to harvest anything!