Tradition can be difficult to refute. And as often as we may disagree with our families, we tend to cling to those things that “grandpa always said,” like calling those wild canids coydogs, and referring to deer antlers as horns. One of the very common misnomers around the Adirondacks is the snowshoe rabbit. I hate to say it, but there’s no such beast; what we have is a snowshoe hare.
Now some folks may think this is splitting hairs (no pun intended), but rabbits and hares, despite looking the same, are different animals. And it’s not merely a case of one having longer (or shorter) ears than the other, or one changing color and the other not. Nope, the differences are extensive, and they include biology, physiology and behavior.
Before you get all flustered, you can rest assured that there are cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridans) in the Adirondacks, but not throughout the whole Park. The cottontail can be found in the southern, eastern and northern lowland parts of the Park. It is not a cold-hardy animal. In fact, like the opossum, it only arrived relatively recently in the Adirondack region, believed to have moved northward as agriculture opened up wilderness areas.
On the other hand, the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) has been around forever and can be found throughout the Park, at all elevations, wherever conifers are present (in wetlands, lowlands, or on mountains). It is an animal designed for the cold, from its large furry feet feet to its varying fur. But the differences are more than skin deep.
For ease of discussion, here’s a list of differences:
• Rabbits have large back feet. The snowshoe hare has enormous back feet (on significantly longer back legs).
• Rabbits live in borrows or dens underground, complete with fur-lined nests. Hares build small depressions on top of the ground for their nests; otherwise, they shelter in dense stands of conifers.
• Cottontails are always brown-ish (unless you have an albino). Snowshoe hares change color: white in winter (with black tips on their ears), and brown in summer.
• Baby rabbits are called bunnies, and they are born naked, blind, and totally helpless (altricial). Baby hares are called leverets and are born fully-furred and with their eyes open; shortly after birth they are ready to explore their surroundings (precocial).
• Bunnies stay in their cozy nests for almost two months before dispersing. Leverets hide in separate locations during the day, only coming together when the mother returns to nurse them; in about four weeks they head out on their own.
• When startled, rabbits tend to freeze, hoping danger will pass them by. When a snowshoe hare is startled, it may briefly sit still, but in a short time it takes off, dashing quickly for safety.
• Rabbits sometimes gather in loose aggregations. Like deer, male rabbits will often fight to determine who is dominant; the winner is the one who usually mates with all the females in the area. Hares, however, are mostly solitary. There is little or no fighting among hares; the males and females just pair up for mating.
Is the world going to grind to a halt if you call a snowshoe hare a rabbit? Probably not, but isn’t it nicer to call a spade a spade? It clarifies things and shows the world that you actually know what you are talking about. Credibility – it’s what it’s all about.