Nature Notes – The cottontail rabbit

By Jim Gilbert

When we have a fresh coating of snow overnight, I know that even if I get outdoors before sunrise there will be many cottontail tracks in our yard. The neighborhood cottontails seem to be the first animals out and about. Actually they are active from early evening, through the night, and on into the morning, so it’s not surprising to see the neighborhood well tracked-up as the Sun rises.
The tracks of a rabbit are unlike those of any other animal. They never walk, but their gait is a series of hops or leaps about one to 10 feet at a time. Their smaller front feet hit the ground first, and as the cottontail bounds, the larger hind feet track ahead of the front feet. The rabbit’s speed is similar to a dog’s or a fox’s for about one-fourth mile. They usually escape by dodging abruptly and doubling back to home base where they are familiar with every cluster of shrubs, brush pile, or patch of tall grass that offers protection. Each cottontail has its own home territory, usually fewer than five acres in area, which it seldom leaves.
Cottontails weigh two to four pounds. The fur on their bodies, including their tails, is mostly brown and gray above with white underparts. The conspicuous white tuft of a tail, which has given the animal its name, is held up when it runs. The large eyes, set on the sides of the head, together can see almost a full 360 degree circle without moving. At rest, the long ears lie flat on the back but they are raised and turned from side to side when any hint of danger threatens. The twitching nose seems constantly on the alert for any strange odor riding in the air.
Since the cottontail is chiefly nocturnal in habit, during the day several hours are spent hunched motionless in one or another of several sitting places, or “forms,” in heavy grass, a hole in the ground, or the shelter of a brush pile. The rabbit does not dig a burrow although it often uses woodchuck dens, hollow logs, and the tile drains to escape enemies or for shelter during stormy weather. Shortly after sundown these rabbits go forth to forage on green vegetation in summer, or on twigs and bark of small shrubs in winter.

What’s happening outdoors now?
As of today we have gained two hours and 17 minutes of daylight since the winter solstice on Dec. 21. That’s good news! The long bright golden-yellow twigs of weeping willows glow in the sunlight.
Snow depth is about 25 inches, yet the first horned larks have arrived. They are among the first early bird migrants. Look for small flocks of three to 10 or even up to 30 horned larks along rural roadsides. Some European starlings are displaying yellow beaks. Their bills change from black to yellow for the upcoming nesting season. American goldfinches show splotches of new yellow feathers; another subtle spring sign.
With our cold temperatures and above normal snowfalls, heated birdbaths attract much attention; and a steady stream of black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, blue jays, northern cardinals, various woodpeckers, and more come to our feeding stations.

On Feb. 27 a year ago
We had a partly cloudy sky, a low temperature of 29 and a high of 38 degrees F. Only about 6 inches of snow covered the landscape. Some big pressure ridges were seen on the edges of Lake Waconia and other area lakes. The first wintering-over male mourning doves had begun cooing, and house finches were singing their musical warbled spring songs.