BUGS, or ROGER?
Can You Tell a Cottontail from a Hare from a House Rabbit?
by Kate McGinley, House Rabbit Society
domestic cat attacks (keep your cats indoors!),
one of the main hazards for baby cottontails
in our area is well-meaning humans who think
a nest of babies has been abandoned when
most of the time it hasn't been.
Mother cottontails only nurse their babies
once or twice a day, and the rest of the
time they stay away so as not to attract
predators. If you want to test if the mother
is around, carefully arrange some sticks
in a pattern on top of the nest. Check back
later. If the mother has come to nurse,
the sticks will be disturbed. The babies
and nest will be gone in just a few weeks.
the babies, looking tiny and delicate, hop
around the nest exploring their surroundings.
They are very small-only "tennis ball" size when they actually leave the nest to
start life on their own. They are independent
at a much earlier age than domestic rabbits.
If you see one not in immediate danger,
just leave well enough alone.
you do rescue cottontails truly in need,
don't try to care for them yourself. Keep
them warm and quiet, and contact your nearest
wildlife rehabilitator. Orphan baby rabbits
are very difficult to raise, and cottontails
do not do well in captivity. There is a
list of wildlife rehabilitators at our web
through a park or look out into your own backyard during the morning
in our area and you might be lucky enough to see a cottontail
rabbit or two grazing on the grass. Many people are
under the impression that these
rabbits are the same species as our domestic companions
and are just living wild. And so, many
rabbits get dumped outside every year because people
they can survive and may even join a wild "warren."
domestic rabbits are, in fact, descended from European
wild rabbits-not our native cottontails. Centuries ago,
European wild rabbits were
domesticated and the many varieties we are all now familiar
with were developed. Today's domestic rabbit bears little
resemblance to its wild cousin.
let's start at the beginning. The "family" of rabbits is called Leporidae. This family includes
rabbits and hares. Within this family are currently
11 "genera," including hares (also called
jackrabbits): genus Lepus; cotton-tails: genus
Sylvilagus; "true rabbits": genus Oryctolagus;
and a variety of rare beasts such as the volcano rabbit
(genus Romerolagus) and the "African harsh-furred" hares (genus: Poelagus).
concentrate on the ones we know: Hares (also called
jackrabbits), cottontails, and European rabbits. Hares
live in North America and virtually all of Africa and
Eurasia. There are 30 currently recognized species.
Cottontails live only in North and South America-nowhere
else-and there are 13 currently recognized species,
including our eastern cottontail and the marsh rabbit
commonly found in the South. European rabbits naturally
habitate only in western and southern Europe- from the
Mediterranean to Morocco and northern Algeria.
have, however, been introduced to some other areas like
Australia with devastating results for the local fauna.
European rabbits are comprised of only one species:
Warren't You Like to Know?
So what the heck is the difference between hares, cottontails,
and our rabbits? Hare babies are born fully furred,
eyes open. Adult hares do not dig burrows and live a
more or less solitary life. Cottontails are born naked,
eyes closed. However, they develop much faster than
their domestic cousins. They are weaned at 2 weeks and
are ready to live on their own at 4 weeks. Like hares,
adult cottontails do not dig burrows but build a rather
loose nest out of grass and rabbit fur for their babies,
and otherwise just take cover in bushes and such. They
are solitary creatures-sometimes you might see several
grazing near each other-but they do not live together.
European rabbits dig elaborate burrows and form complex
societies called warrens. A warren can include hundreds
of individuals and have a complex social structure-one
of the reasons it's so difficult and touchy to match
up our domestic rabbits. While they are happiest in
the company of another rabbit, they need to go through
social posturings for it to "feel right."
do you tell if a rabbit is wild or domestic?
natural, or "wild" coloring of hares, cottontails,
and European rabbits is the same: known as "agouti"
coloring. We still see this color often in our domestic
rabbits (see Figure B). Sometimes people think this
means their domestic rabbit is, in fact, a cross between
a cottontail and a domestic rabbit-this is not the case.
Cottontails and domestic (or European) rabbits are genetically
isolated; they cannot interbreed. If a cottontail meets
a domestic rabbit, they would probably not even recognize
him as a rabbit. He just wouldn't be "acting" right.
the rabbit is not particularly afraid of you, he is
domestic. Cottontails, even if raised in captivity,
have a natural fear of humans when mature. If there
are any patches of color (including white), he is domestic.
Baby cottontails sometimes have a small spot of white
on their foreheads, but that is it (see Figure A). Adult
cottontails range from 2-4 lbs., averaging 3 lbs. tops.
If the bunny is bigger than that, he could be a domestic
rabbit. Cottontails have very long slender legs and
a real "wedge" shaped head. Their ears are
very thin at the tips-you can often see light right
through-and narrow at the base. Domestic rabbits have
a more dome-shaped "forehead" and more prominent cheekbones. No matter how much a
domestic rabbit might resemble a cottontail from the
side, if you look him straight in the face you will
know he's not a cottontail by his chubbier cheeks.
from the Spring
2000 CloverLeaf with permission from the House
Rabbit Society of Maryland, DC, Northern Virginia.
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