Is it A Rabbit or A Hare?

Rabbits and hares are not the same even though the names are often used interchangeably. Rabbits and hares are completely separate species and have more differences than similarities. The difference between the two species appears at the moment they are born and the best way to tell them apart is by examining their young. Here are the two species that are native to Mendocino County.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit- Lepus californicus

The name Jackrabbit is a misnomer, these animals are hares, not rabbits. They were named for their long donkey-like ears. Jacks are male donkeys, hence the name “Jackrabbit”. The long ears of the Jackrabbit are used to regulate its body temperature and dissipate heat.

A female hare is called a Jill and a male a Jack. A newborn or young hare is called a leveret.     

Hares can give birth year round. The peak breeding season runs from January to June. They can produce two litters per year with usually two to five in a litter.

Female jackrabbits do not nest but give birth in a shallow depression under shrubbery called a “form”.  The newborn leverets are precocial, meaning they come into the world with their eyes wide open and a full coat of fur, and they are off and hopping within a few hours after they are born.

The mother jackrabbit separates her litter for a better chance of some babies surviving. Baby hares can fend for themselves pretty quickly after birth, so they are left alone most of the time with mother only visiting to nurse two to three times a day, usually dawn and dusk.

Brush Rabbit- Sylvilagus bachmani

Brush rabbits are much smaller and compact compared to the larger lanky jackrabbit. They are more secretive living and hiding in dense brushy cover such as blackberries and willow. Unlike some species of rabbits they do not burrow.

A male rabbit is called a buck, a female - a doe and babies - kittens. Females can produce two to three litters a year and there are typically four to seven kittens in a litter.

Before birth the female rabbit prepares a shallow nest which she lines predominantly with fur plucked from her abdomen and covered with grasses. The nest will be hidden under a dense bush or a brush pile. Baby rabbits are altricial, meaning they born completely helpless. The infants are naked with eyes and ears closed, and unable to move around. Within 3 to 4 weeks of age, the kittens are weaned and on their own. Like the hare, female brush rabbits leave their babies for many hours only visiting the nest for short periods of time to feed them.

NOTE: Both hares and rabbits practice coprophagy. Meaning they eat their own feces. This is an important source of protein, certain vitamins, plus provides a healthy gut flora for the animal. This natural probiotic is very important to their survival.

Tips if you find a baby hare or rabbit

Because both wild hares and rabbits have very delicate digestive systems, are extremely sensitive and easily stressed they do not do well in captivity. They will not survive without the right care and diet.

If you find a baby jackrabbit and it is not injured, leave it where it was found. A leveret’s main defense when threatened is to freeze, which is often mistaken by people as being calm. The animal is not calm, it is terrified. Keep children, dogs and cats away from the area until the young hare is gone. Leverets will wander a bit, and when the mother returns to the area she calls to her young and they will reunite.

If you accidentally disturb a baby brush rabbit nest during brush removal, put young back by covering them and remaking the nest in the same place. Put into it as much of the original material as you can recover, including the mother’s fur. Add dried grass and cover with brush. Stay away as much as possible so as not to attract predators. To determine if the mother is returning, create a tic-tac-toe pattern over the nest with tiny twigs. Wait 24 hours to see if the twigs have been disturbed.  If the twigs have been disturbed you can be assured the mother has been back to feed the kittens.