Hares and Rabbits

Figure 1: Photo Credit - USFWS

Figure 2: Photo Credit - Carolyn Bryant

Overview

Maine is home to two rabbit-like species, but only one of them -- the New England cottontail (Fig. 1) -- is a true rabbit. The other is the snowshoe hare. Snowshoe hares are larger than New England cottontails, having a larger body, longer ears, and much longer feet. Probably the most recognizable difference between the two species is that snowshoe hares turn white during the winter while New England cottontails remain brown. Hares are born fully furred with their eyes open, and can hop about within hours of their birth. Rabbits, on the other hand, give birth to blind, hairless young that require considerable attention during their first two weeks of life.

The snowshoe hare (Fig. 2)is found throughout Maine; the New England cottontail does not live north of the Portland area, and was recently listed as a state endangered species. (The species is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act) Loss of habitat has caused a steep decline in New England cottontail populations throughout their range in New England and New York.

Facts about Maine's Hares and Rabbits

Food and Feeding Behavior

From spring to fall, rabbits and hares eat green vegetation such as dandelions, grass, and the new growth on woody plants. The winter diets consist mainly of small woody twigs and bark from small gray birch, red maple, apple, aspen, choke cherry, and black cherry as well as shrubs or vines, including blackberry, willow, black alder and high-bush blueberry.

Shelter

  • Both snowshoe hare and New England cottontail need dense ground vegetation for cover from predators. Snowshoe hare prefer dense conifer growth while New England cottontail prefer dense deciduous vegetation.
  • Snowshoe hare are primarily nocturnal. They spend most of the day resting in shallow depressions called forms. Forms are chosen at random but are typically located in dense cover. When approached, hare remain motionless in these forms before sprinting away.
  • New England cottontail use forms and – like most North American rabbits – burrows made by other animals, as they do not make their own.

Reproduction

  • The breeding season for hares and rabbits in Maine begins sometime in March and can continue through late summer. Snowshoe hare can have up to four litters a year, with one to nine young per litter. New England cottontail can have up to three litters a year and average of five young per litter.
  • Newborn hare are fully furred, have open eyes, weigh about two and a half ounces (70 grams), and have a dense brown coat with a small patch of white on the forehead. They are capable of moving around after one day and normally nurse for 25 to 28 days, except for the last litter of the season which may nurse much longer. They begin to feed on grass and other herbaceous plants after 10 to 12 days.

Mortality and Longevity

  • Predators of snowshoe hare and New England cottontail come in about every shape and size. Hawks, owls, dogs, cats, coyotes, foxes, weasels, mink, fisher, marten, lynx, and bobcats all prey on both species.
  • Annual mortality rates of snowshoe hare and New England cottontail are thought to be similar. For juveniles, 75 to 95 percent die each year, while adult mortality ranges from 66 to 81 percent. With such high mortality, it is unusual for wild rabbits or hares to live much more than a year.

Pet Bunnies

Although pet bunnies are sometimes released when people lose interest in them, it is illegal to release rabbits in the wild. In particular, releasing non-native eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) in Maine could lead to the extirpation of the state endangered New England cottontail. At a minimum, releasing Eastern cottontail rabbits would greatly complicate ongoing restoration efforts for New England cottontail. If you have a pet rabbit and no longer want it, take it to an animal adoption center or find a home for it by advertising or putting up signs in local pet shops and animal clinics.

Figure 3: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

Figure 4: Photo Credit - Russell Link

Hare and Rabbit Sign

  • The most noticeable sign that hares or rabbits are present in an area is evidence of browsing on small woody branches such as roses or raspberries. Branches appear to be neatly clipped at a 45-degree angle, as opposed to deer browsing, in which the twigs are roughly chewed off. (Fig. 3)

Signs of rabbits include the clean-cut, angled clipping-off of flower heads, buds, and young stems, and gnawing on the stems of woody plants, blackberry canes and other brambles, and on fallen twigs and branches. (Fig. 3)

  • Hare and rabbit droppings are found in groups of five to 10 scattered on the ground in feeding areas. They are generally spherical – though sometimes slightly oblong or irregular – and three eights of an inch in diameter. (Fig. 4)

Rabbit droppings are about three eights of an inch in diameter, and composed of light brown, sawdust-like material. (Fig. 4)

  • Tracks in snow can indicate whether a snowshoe hare or New England cottontail frequents the area. The hind print a of snowshoe hare is wider than one and a half inches and longer than four and a half inches; the hind print of a cottontail is up to that size.

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Preventing Conflicts

New England cottontail, because of their low numbers and reclusive habits, do not represent a significant pest problem to landowners at this time.

Likewise, snowshoe hare interact little with humans despite their abundance, as they are reluctant to venture into open areas to feed. They are rarely implicated in crop or orchard damage; damage to regenerating forests is usually minor, with the exception of edges near dense forest cover that may receive heavier browsing pressure. (Scientists researching the impact of snowshoe hare on regenerating forests recently found that hares had browsed only one percent off all deciduous twigs and no coniferous twigs in the study. One possible explanation for this light browsing was the lack of good hare cover. Ground cover was less than 10 percent and lateral foliage density was less than 50 percent for all regeneration categories studied)

People concerned about preventing damage to nursery or garden crops may want to follow some of the suggested remedies below:

Fences:

Fences provide the most long-term and effective way to protect plantings from hare damage. Commercially available "Rabbit Guard" fencing or a 3-foot tall fence, constructed with 1-inch mesh chicken wire and supported by sturdy stakes or posts every 4-6 feet, will exclude hares from an enclosed area. Where deep snow is common, fences will need to be higher, or adjusted to exclude animals during winter.

Hares are more likely to go under a fence than over it. As a deterrent, place the bottom of the fence six inches underground, stake the bottom of the fence flush to the ground, or line the bottom of the fence with rock, bricks, fence posts, or similar items. Another option is to create a one-foot wide wire apron on top of the ground on the animal side of the fence. Be sure to secure the apron firmly with stakes. The lower two to three feet of an existing fence or gate can be covered with one-inch wire mesh to exclude hares. Attach the protective wire to the fence at enough points to prevent sagging, and follow the above recommendations to prevent the animals from pushing through from underneath. Use tight-fitting gates and keep them closed as much as possible.

Inspect the fence regularly to make sure animals have not dug or pushed their way under it, or worked their way over it. Once a hare gets into a fenced area, it may not be able to get out without being directed to a gate or other opening.

Figure 5b: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

Figure 5a: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

Other barriers:

In some cases, protecting individual plants may be more practical than excluding animals from an entire area. When placed over seedlings, commercially sold cloches or one-gallon plastic milk containers with the bottom cut out provide protection from animals as well as late frosts.

One-inch mesh chicken wire can be cut and formed into cylinders and placed around plants needing protection. (Fig. 5) Bury the bottom of the cylinders three inches below the soil line and brace them away from the plants so animals cannot press against the cylinder and nibble through the mesh. Inspect these barriers regularly to keep the area inside the barriers clean of leaves, weeds, and other debris, which can hide damage caused by mice and voles.

A variety of commercially available protectors such as nylon mesh and plastic tubes – or even double-wrapped aluminum foil – can also be effective.

A cylinder of chicken wire, hardware cloth, or drainage pipe can protect young trees from hare damage. (Fig. 5)

Scare devices and repellents:

Visual scare tactics including Mylar tape, party balloons and pinwheel devices have limited usefulness in discouraging rabbits or hare, particularly in urban and suburban areas where the animals quickly get used to them. Ultrasonic units, which rely on sound waves, have not been proven effective. A dog can help keep hares away, especially if it is outside and awake at night.

Plants may also be protected with commercially available or homemade taste repellents that render the treated plant inedible. Research has shown that repellents with putrescent whole-egg solids can reduce browsing by hares. Apply repellents before damage occurs and reapply frequently, especially after a rain, heavy dew, sprinkler irrigation, or when new growth occurs. In all cases, follow the label directions. Many repellents cannot be used on plants or plant parts to be eaten by humans. (For recipes and detailed information on repellents, see "Preventing Conflicts" in Deer.)

Other nonlethal control methods:

Encouraging natural predators of hares — or at least not interfering with them — may aid in reducing plant damage. It is common to provide perches for owls and hawks in some commercial areas to control hares and small rodents. Although removing brush piles, weed patches, rock piles, and other debris where hares live and hide may decrease their numbers, it is important to consider the potential impact on other, desirable wildlife species.

Hare-resistant plants:

Protecting vulnerable plants from hare damage within a fence and landscaping with hare-resistant plants elsewhere makes an effective combination. A walk or drive through the neighborhood can give you an idea of what plants are less palatable to these animals.

Note: When preferred foods become scarce, hare will eat most species of plants.

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Public Health Concerns

Rabbits, hares, voles, muskrats, and beavers are some of the species that can be infected with tularemia, a bacterial disease. Tularemia can be acquired through ingesting undercooked rabbit meat or handling a dead or sick animal, so anyone handling these animals should wear rubber gloves and wash his or her hands well when finished.

Common symptoms of tularemia are a high temperature, headache, body ache, nausea, and sweats; a mild case may be confused with the flu. Humans can be easily treated with antibiotics.

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Legal Status

The New England cottontail is an endangered species, so it is illegal to hunt or trap these animals Maine. For information on hunting snowshoe hare, see the Department's current trapping information booklet online or contact an MDIFW Regional Office.

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Additional Information

Books

Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage
Written by: Scott E. Hygnstrom, et al.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1994.
Available from: University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, 202 Natural Resources Hall, Lincoln, NE 68583-0819; phone: 402-472-2188; also see Internet Sites below.

New England Wildlife, Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution
Written by: Richard DeGraff, and Mariko Yamasaki
University Press of New England, 2001.
Available from: www.upne.com

Internet Resources

New England Cottontail Habitat Management Guide

Adapted from: "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest"
(see Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Written by: Russell Link, Wildlife Biologist, Email Russel Link, with assistance from WDFW Biologists Rich Beausoleil and Rocky Spencer

Design and layout: Peggy Ushakoff, ITT2

Illustrations: As credited

Copyright 2007 by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


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