While there are two species of rabbits and two species of hares that can be found in the Great Lakes Region, there is only one that is found where I live: the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). We see them regularly at Audubon. In fact, people see them in their yards and gardens throughout their range which stretches east of the Rockies from southern Canada down through Mexico wherever habitat is appropriate. Eastern Cottontails like areas where there are plenty of herbaceous plants to eat and plenty of shrubs or brush piles to provide shelter.
The Eastern Cottontail is a small brownish mammal whose tail is dark above and white below. It may be 15-19 inches long and weigh 2-4 pounds. Active throughout the year, you can find plenty of evidence of their activity in the winter: footprints in the snow, browsing, and scat.
Footprints are misleading. I’ll always ask students to guess which way the animal was traveling and they usually guess wrong. When you see a set of tracks, it’s the back tracks that are pointing the direction of travel. In my photo, the rabbit was traveling away from us.
Browsing evidence is easiest to find in winter when the rabbits’ diet changes from soft green plants to bark and twigs. Small branches that have been neatly clipped at a 45-degree angle are most likely the result of rabbit. The front incisors – top and bottom – snip off twigs as easily as garden shears, then peel off bark for a tasty treat. Rabbits’ incisors never stop growing, so they MUST gnaw to keep them in check.
Scat is round – about the shape and color of Cocoa Puffs cereal. Yum, yum. And speaking of eating scat, rabbits do. Not the round, brown ones, though. Here’s the scoop on rabbit poop: Rabbits and hares have an extensive “cecum” – an outcropping of the large intestine. It is full of bacteria that break down tough plant material that the stomach and small intestine could not digest. The problem is neither the cecum nor the large intestines can absorb the nutrients that have been released by these bacteria. So here’s the solution: The cecum packages the material into soft, green pellets which the rabbit defecates, then reingests, a practice called coprophagy. Oh, I just love telling students about this. It always gets a great reaction!
And why talk about bunnies now? Well, it’s nearly Easter, after all… And what do bunnies have to do with the Christian celebration of their savior’s resurrection? Nothing really. Bunnies come from a much older tradition.
Eastre (earlier, Eostre, derived from the Saxons’ Germanic heritage) was the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of dawn, spring and fertility. Our word, “east” is related to this deity’s name. Her male consort was the Sun god, and the sun does rise, after all, at dawn and in the east. Rites of spring were celebrated in her honor at the vernal equinox (first day of spring). The first Sunday after the first full moon succeeding the vernal equinox was also sacred to her, and this pagan holiday was given her name — Eastre. The full moon represented the “pregnant” phase of Eastre — she was passing into the fertile season and giving birth to the Sun’s offspring.
Eastre’s symbols were the hare and the egg. Both represent fertility and, consequently, rebirth. Since rabbits are more common in most lands than hares, over time the rabbit has been substituted — not without merit, since rabbits are notorious for their fertility. Thus was born the “Easter Rabbit” tradition. <source>
Whatever you do to celebrate the coming Vernal Equinox, may you find joy and rebirth! Happy Easter!
I adapted this post for one of Audubon’s Saturday newspaper articles. It should appear in the the Jamestown Post-Journal, Warren Times Observer, and Dunkirk Observer on Saturday, March 22, 2008. The adapted article is on the Audubon blog. Click here!