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Please Pity Peter Rabbit: Understanding the cottontail rabbit 

Understanding the cottontail rabbit.

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If there is one poor little guy that's on the short end of just about everyone's shopping list who eats meat, it's the cottontail rabbit, or as children's book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter called it, "Peter Rabbit."

Perhaps the animal that depends on poor little Peter for food in our parts is the great horned owl. Both rabbit and owl are out feeding at night, but the owl has the upper hand. Yes, poor little Peter is dull brown and gray because of its fur, and it moves very slowly as it snips off tender buds, leaves and grass, but that big owl has some of the best equipment Nature ever invented for seeing and hearing small, slow-moving, rabbits. Once spotted, few escape the needle-sharp talons of this tiger of the air.

Peter's cottontail is an anatomical feature that often saves him from being caught, and, startled, he will stop moving and the only thing that a predator can usually see is the tiny tuft of Peter's white tail. A coyote set upon rabbit supper, will pounce on the white spot, which, if Peter is on the ball, will suddenly move left or right and then vanish behind a thick lump of sagebrush, rock or under a log.

But Poor little Peter doesn't usually stand a chance when a human hunter gets after him with a dog. No matter what the rabbit does, or where he goes, he leaves a scent behind him, and dogs have one of the best sniffers in Nature - especially beagles which have been bred to hunt rabbits.

Skunks eat rabbits, cougars eat rabbits and outdoor cats eat rabbits, as do weasels and other carnivores. About every raptor that soars overhead, or hides in ambush (like accipiters) will eat a rabbit when the opportunity arrives, and gopher snakes will often slide quietly into a rabbit's nest and eat Peter and all his brothers and sisters.

Because of its high productivity rate, the cottontail rabbit is an important link in the food chain and depending on availability, it is considered a "buffer prey species," meaning if rabbit numbers are high, predators will concentrate on them, thus reducing the pressure on other prey species.

Right here is a good place to separate rabbits from hares, which are scientifically, "apples and oranges." In spite of the fact that, lepus californicus, the black-tailed jackrabbit, is called a "rabbit," it is not, it's a hare.

Hares are usually bigger than rabbits, they do not build a "nest" - where baby rabbits are born naked and helpless - hare babies are born under a bush or behind a rock and they're ready to run, plus there are lots of other differences, like teeth and so forth.

And just so you know, there are over 74 species of cottontails listed throughout South, Central and North America, one of them named after Hugh Hefner of Playboy magazine, sylvilagus palustris paludicola hefneri. And to make life more interesting and give Oregon a wider variety of cottontails, some enthusiastic rabbit-hunter turned a bunch of Eastern Cottontails, sylvilagus floridanus loose in the Willamette Valley years back.

Peter Rabbit and his kin breed from March through early fall. Except for the very rare and endangered pygmy rabbits, Brachylagus idahoensis, that live in burrows, female cottontails do not dig their own nest burrows, but rather scratch out a slight depression (nest) in the ground in an area of dense grass for concealment, and line it with fur and dry grass.

The gestation period is about 28 days, with two to four litters per year with about three to eight young per litter. Young rabbits are born blind, naked, and helpless but grow rapidly, leaving the nest after only two to three weeks. They are weaned and totally independent at four to five weeks, and if they're lucky, perhaps 15 percent of the young will survive their first year.

Although rabbits don't take to the water often, they're good swimmers. Like the cartoon character, Thumper, they will thump the ground with their hind feet regularly as a means of communication, but if captured by a predator, poor Peter produces a loud, shrill scream, a sound that sends chills up my spine. Most "predator calls" employ that terrible scream to attract coyotes and other predators to kill them.

As my wife can tell you - and Beatrix Potter had great fun telling children - Peter will often cause problems by plundering the kitchen garden and chewing on ornamental shrubs and trees. (And in case you're interested, rabbit browsing can be distinguished from deer browsing by looking at the clipped-off end - a rabbit will leave a clean, angled cut while a deer will leave a rough, jagged cut.)

I can tell you cottontails can be restricted from gardens by erecting a three-foot high fence with two-by-two inch mesh; my wife had me put one up - and if you put up a four-foot fence for deer and add two rows of string a foot apart at the top the deer will stay out as well.


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