Before I get going on rabbits and hares, I have to tell you something about the dilemma we have right at this moment; it involves people who like to shoot "rabbits" and the needs of eagles. There is overwhelming evidence that, without jackrabbits, golden eagles are in big trouble. It's as simple as that: Kill jackrabbits and you're also killing golden eagles.
There are so many sport hunters out on the desert these days killing jackrabbits, they have interrupted the natural population boom-and-bust cycle of jackrabbits, and that in turn has impacted the welfare of golden eagles. I'm not blowin' smoke, Good People, I know of what I speak. It's the results of my witnessing the decline in nesting success of golden eagles over the last 50-plus years, coupled with the drastic decline of jackrabbits in the environs surrounding Bend and Redmond over the last 20 years. Please keep that in mind the next time you, or your pal, want to head out " 'rabbit' huntin'."
When it comes to knowing the difference between rabbits and hares, confusion reineth. Yep, they're both mammals and known as "Leporids," and belong to the zoological Order: Lagomorpha. But in most cases, hares have long ears and are larger than rabbits, while the smallest lagomorph—neither a hare or a rabbit, but a pika—lives in the High Country (and the High Desert in some areas) and is an expert at laying aside hay to feed on in winter.
Leporids are thought to have evolved from rodents, as the two groups have chisel-shaped teeth (incisors), except that rabbits and hares have an extra pair of incisors, one right behind the other. This arrangement helps them to cut off plant stems quickly and hold the food while the back molars grind it up. When rabbits and hares eat grass, for example, the stems sometimes stick straight out of their mouths and slowly vanish as they chew it up.
Another peculiar difference between leporids and rodents is the second time rabbits and hares get at obtaining the most from their food. They have two kinds of droppings (feces). The first is small and moist, covered with a mucous, which are quickly ingested again so the food goes through the digestive system a second time, similar to a cow chewing its cud. More nutrients can be extracted this way and also helps rabbits to digest tough vegetation, such as bark and twigs. The final feces are dry and well digested pellets.
One other way in which hares and rabbits differ is their method of reproduction. Hares are born with a full coat of hair, eyes wide open and ready to run. In the case of our native black-tailed jackrabbits (which are really not "rabbits" but hares), mom usually has three babies and will usually keep them separate at birth. She may leave one under a big sagebrush, another beneath an overhanging slab of lava, and perhaps the third in a depression near a juniper stump. Then she surreptitiously slinks around nursing them when conditions are safe for she and her babies known as "leverets."
Rabbits, such as our lovely little desert cottontail, are born naked and blind in a warm, fur-and grass-lined nest hidden away from enemies and cold weather where mother rabbit keeps the babies warm and nurses them constantly. When she goes out for a quick meal she covers the little ones with fur plucked from her body and a layer of dead vegetation to keep them warm and camouflaged. But if the hare's habitat is destroyed it's curtains for them, too. They have little protection from the rigors of cold nights and no place to hide their babies.
As a general rule, both hares and rabbits are nocturnal. While rabbits try to stay hidden as much as possible, hares seem to be bolder and will often gambol about sagebrush and bunch grass in daylight. (Making them prefect targets for eagles.) If there's a threat of a predator discovering a hares' stashed leverets, the adult female will leap into the air to get the predator's attention, and make a dash in the opposite direction in an effort to draw the threat away from her babies.
Black-tailed jackrabbits may appear to be timid and shy animals, easy to catch and kill. Wrong! Their powerful hind legs can send them flying through the air in six-foot leaps and help them to make immediate turns and zigzag dashes away from trouble. If an owl or eagle doesn't make a quick kill, and the hare rolls over and kicks with its clawed hind feet, it will often disembowel the raptor.
Black-tailed jackrabbits are the preferred prey of golden eagles, great horned owls and coyotes. Predators get the most protein for the least amount of energy put to use to catch the prey. Brush rabbits are on the shopping list of weasels, small owls, bobcats and other smaller meat-eaters.
Disease is often a vicious killer of jackrabbits, tularemia the nastiest. For people who enjoy eating hares and rabbits it is best to check and make sure they are not infected before cooking them up. But then, I was raised on eastern cottontail stew served with dumplings, and never gave disease a thought.