The What do the high elevation sub-alpine forests and the low elevation sagebrush shrub-lands of Eagle County have in common? Both places are inhabited by lots of rabbits and hares.
Rabbits and hares are abundant animals that feed on leafy plants and grasses during summer, and twigs, buds and bark during the wintertime. Rabbits and hares provide a crucial link in the food chain by converting plants into meat that is essential to carnivores such as bobcats, fox, coyotes, eagles and owls. Like mice who also play a major role near the bottom of the food chain, rabbits breed and multiply quickly in order to keep up with the mortality rate from predation.
Locally in the thick pines, spruces and firs of the sub-alpine forest, we have both the snowshoe hare and the mountain cottontail rabbit. Snowshoe hares have huge rear feet that float on top of the powder snow. These huge feet are reflected in their tracks. Snowshoe hare molt to all-white for the wintertime so that they are camouflaged as a snowball in the forest.
When approached a rabbit or hare will hold perfectly still and attempt to remain undetected. However, when flushed they bolt across the landscaped bounding in left-right zigzags until reaching cover. This random back and forth movement makes rabbits and hares particularly tricky to catch.
This demonstrates how the element of surprise is a key factor for a predator. For instance, a fox waits in ambush along a popular bunny trail. Or a golden eagle flushes a rabbit while its sharp-taloned mate greets the prey head on. Pairs of coyotes also hunt in this, “you flush, I’ll grab” manner.
Mountain cottontails are medium sized gray-brown rabbits with fluffy white cotton ball tails. This adaptable species lives in shrub-lands, open woodlands, meadows, thickets, stream courses, and thick forests to near timberline. Unlike the snowshoe hare, the cottontails remain brownish all year, and they also have normal-sized feet. If you’re in a high pine forest and you see rabbit tracks and the rear feet are not oversized, that’s hard evidence that the mountain cottontail lives there.
Anybody who has driven Highway 131 at night knows how many cottontails run out into the road. However road kill does not go wasted in such wild lands because the carnivores and scavengers work the roadway on their hunting routes.
Jackrabbits are in fact large hares and are capable of speeds of 35mph. Jackrabbits inhabit open fields and grasslands where cover is scarce. Raw speed is its best escape from predators with leaps in bounds of twenty feet, and jumping up to six feet in height.
So what’s the difference between rabbits and hares? In appearance, rabbits have shorter ears than hares or jackrabbits, but the main difference is how their young are reared. Rabbits are born in a burrow or protected site blind, naked and helpless. These dependent young are known as altricial and are completely reliant on their mother for constant care. On the other hand, hares and jackrabbits are born out in the open, are fully-furred, their eyes are wide open, they’re alert and can run about within hours of birth. These types of young are known as precocial because they are largely ready-to-go.
Rabbits and hares have two types of droppings. Hard pellets are dry and contain bits of digested vegetation that we often see as scat. Soft pellets on the other hand are not discarded, but are eaten and additional nutrients are thereby extracted from its food.
One other member of the rabbit family lives locally in the high country and that’s the pika. Living near or above treeline in boulder fields, pikas remain awake during winter and survive on stored vegetation. During the summer months, pikas harvest vast quantities of alpine plants, flowers, and sedges. They carefully dry little arm-fulls of vegetation the warm sunny rocks. This drying procedure is essential to prevent its winter stores from mold.
Each pika, although only the size of a tennis ball fiercely defends its “hay pile” from intruders because it the difference between surviving and starving.
Unlike other rabbits, pikas have tiny ears and virtually no tails. This is an adaptation to cold climates. Rabbits and hares use their large ears as a way to dissipate heat. Pikas on the other hand live only in cold high-mountain environments and they have adapted to retain warmth by decreasing its surface area. Interestingly, a pika cannot come down in elevation; it is unable to survive in warm temperatures.
Rabbits occur in virtually every environment across North America and on every continent except Australia. This is a testament to the vital role of rabbits as they provide critical food for birds of prey and mammalian predators alike.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.