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The Newsroom: Issues : Cottontails vs. Domestic Rabbits

PETER, BUGS, or ROGER?
Can You Tell a Cottontail from a Hare from a House Rabbit?
by Kate McGinley, House Rabbit Society

After 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.

Sometimes 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.

If 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 site
www.rabbitsinthehouse.org/wildlife.html

Walk through a park or look out into your own backyard during the morning or evening 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 think they can survive and may even join a wild "warren."

Our 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.

But 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).

Baby CottontailsLet's 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.

They 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: Oryctolagus cuniculus.

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."

How do you tell if a rabbit is wild or domestic?

Cottontail and Agouti Rabbits

The 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.

If 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.

Reprinted from the Spring 2000 CloverLeaf with permission from the House Rabbit Society of Maryland, DC, Northern Virginia.

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