Monday, April 2, 2012

Your Easter Chocolate: Cottontail Rabbit or Varying Hare?

The mild weather that the Adirondacks has experienced over the past 10 to 12 months has benefited numerous forms of wildlife better suited for an existence in a temperate climate rather than a taiga biome. Yet, the inability of many creatures to travel long distances prevents them from quickly overspreading the Park when a lengthy warm period becomes firmly established.

Additionally, the wilderness forests of the Adirondacks limit the influx of those species that thrive in the lowlands composed primarily of agricultural fields and small suburban communities. Perhaps the status of the cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is one of the best examples of this type of natural exclusion, as this small game creature is abundant everywhere in the eastern U.S. except for settings well within the Blue Line.
The cottontail is slightly smaller in overall size and has smaller hind legs and feet then the varying hare, also known as the snowshoe rabbit (Lepus americanus). Even though both of these lagomorphs can travel a fair distance with a single hop, the cottontail’s running style is slightly choppier and less graceful when compared to the smoother and more powerful bounding of the varying hare when it needs to move fast. Also, the cottontail has a pronounced white, rounded tail which contrasts with its gray coat of fur, and which helped earn this creature its common name. Because the tail of the snowshoe is the same color as that of its body, and is held closer to its back, this small, rear appendage is difficult to notice.

On those occasions when either is seen sitting in poor light, it often is a challenge to correctly identify the individual as a rabbit or hare. Yet, even though their appearances are strikingly similar, the cottontail is a creature that exists only in the lowland valleys near the boundaries of the Park. In these warmer settings, the cottontail is better able to tolerate the adverse winter conditions. Since it remains gray throughout this season, the cottontail has a better chance for survival in places where dried grasses, weeds and small shrubs, rather than a deep blanket of snow, forms a substantial portion of the background. Also, the hind feet of the cottontail lack the ultra-wide character that typifies the rear feet of the varying hare. This allows the cottontail to travel more easily in places where snow is not as common, or fails to accumulate as deep as it does in most locations throughout the Central Adirondacks.

Along with its preference for a life in a temperate region, the cottontail strongly favors meadows, brush covered forest clearings, and woodland edges rather than the dense conifer forests or wet, wooded thickets inhabited by the varying hare. Like the woodchuck, the cottontail feeds mainly on grasses, weeds and other herbaceous plants that abound in open, sun drenched settings during the growing season. Even after several killing frosts in the autumn, the cottontail remains along forest edges where it can continue to nibble on buds of small shrubs, stems of selected dried weeds and foliage that remains in places sheltered from the lowest temperatures.

During winter the cottontail may be able to find enough fallen seeds, fruits and berries on the ground in semi-open places if the snow cover is not too deep and the site has not already been picked clean of such matter by other creatures. Because large, frequent patches of bramble filled meadows are almost totally absent in the mountainous regions of the Adirondacks, it becomes a challenge for the cottontail to survive here, despite increasing periods of more favorable weather.

The cottontail rabbit does exist in many areas in the Champlain Valley, in the far northern sections of the Park that lie along the edge of the St. Lawrence Valley, and in the southernmost foothills where some agricultural activities exist, and provide suitable habitat. The possibility for the expansion of these population clusters is unlikely in the foreseeable future, as the type of development that would be necessary to promote favorable plant communities is unlikely.

Easter is a time when chocolate bunnies appear in most stores, and the question that inevitably arises among hard-core naturalists is whether these creatures are rabbits or hares. There is never any doubt that the candy figure that I find in my Easter basket is a cottontail rabbit, not a varying hare. The tail always seems quite conspicuous, despite its similar color, its feet are never extraordinarily large, and it is always located in a clump of green plastic grass, and not an entangled mass of conifer boughs.

Photo courtesy Lake Champlain Chocolates.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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