The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Out and About In The Mountains - Rabbits and Hares

By Fran Stoddard © 1985

Issue: April, 1985

out and about in the mountainsWhat are the differences between rabbits and hares? Drawing by Vinita Stoddard.Question: What are the differences between rabbits and hares?

Answer: Rabbits and Hares belong to the same family. There are more similarities than there are differences. The differences though, will help you distinguish between them.

Hares are usually larger than rabbits, have longer, more powerful hind legs; and longer ears. Hares generally prefer a more open habitat than rabbits. Hares, because of their powerful hind legs and environment, will try to outrun their predators. Rabbits aren't such good runners, they live in denser cover. They will try to hide from their enemies rather than outrun them.

Hares make no nests for their young, because the young are born so well developed that they can take care of themselves within a few hours after birth. Their eyes are open and they are furred out. Rabbits, like our native cottontails, do make nests. Their young are born naked with closed eyes. They need care from their mother for a while. The cottontail's nest is built in tangled underbrush or tall grass. When I was a youngster and my grandfather and Dad cut hay, we would often find nests of baby bunnies at various stages of development. Sometimes, there'd be just the empty nests made from the soft belly fur of the mother cottontail. She pulls it out with her teeth to line the nest.

Both the Eastern cottontail and the New England cottontail can be found in our area. If you are fortunate, you may see the Varying Hare. It prefers the colder climates and is found in Canada and the northern states, but it also extends its range down the Appalachians over parts of Pennsylvania, the Virginias, and along the mountainous border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

The Varying Hare's summer colors are brown, or gray-brown above, with white under parts and underside of tail. The center of its back, rump and top of tail is darker than the remainder of its body. The tips of its ears are dusky to black.

In winter, the Varying Hare, also called Snowshoe Hare because of its large hind feet, is all white except for its black ear tips and eyes.

The Cottontail rabbits need very little description. I think we are all well acquainted with them. The Eastern Cottontail is grayish-brown above, peppered with black; there is often a white spot on its forehead, It also has a rust-colored nape, and a short cottony tail, white underneath. The New England Cottontail is brownish-sprinkled with black and has a black patch between its ears. It never has the white spot on its forehead that its cousin has.

Rabbits will eat almost any form of vegetation. Hares will too, and also have been known to eat meat.

Unfortunately for rabbits and hares, they are the main food of many predators. Without rabbits and hares, the predators would become scarce, without the predators, the rabbits and hares would multiply too much. We saw an example of this in Idaho several years ago when we were there. In southern Idaho, it is mainly agricultural. Many of the livestock owners had killed off the coyote population because a few had killed their lambs. The area became so overpopulated with rabbits that the damage to grain and other crops was mounting to thousands of dollars. So, on a set day, the farmers got together and with loud noises, drove thousands of rabbits into large pens where they beat them to death with clubs. It was a pathetic thing to watch young children even clubbing to death the helpless rabbits.

It was hard to know who to feel sorry for: the farmer trying to make a living, or the rabbit that didn't know, "thou shalt not steal.” When men mess with the ecology, it usually ends up off balanced. A few coyotes would have kept the rabbit population in balance.

There doesn't seem to be much damage by rabbits or hares in this area, unless they invade the gardens. There is plenty of food for them, and plenty of predators (hawks, foxes, owls, man, etc.) to keep them in check…