Wild Files: It’s our Nature

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Chinese New Year is beginning this year on January 22; when celebrants will ring in the Year of the Rabbit. Worldwide, there are 29 species of these quick-on-their feet, long-eared mammals. Rabbits are part of the Leporidae family and they live on every continent except Antarctica. British Columbia is home to a few native species of wild rabbits including white-tailed jackrabbits and the eastern cottontail rabbit, or mountain, cottontail rabbits. I will focus on the latter because despite their name, white-tailed jackrabbits are hares. The terms are often used interchangeably which can be confusing, but hares are most distinguished by their larger size, longer hind legs, and ears.  

Eastern cottontail rabbits are the most common species found in North America. These rascally rabbits have been known to be pests to gardeners across the globe including south-central United States, southern Canada, Mexico, and South and Central America. They can also be found on the Caribbean Island of Margarita. Living exclusively on vegetation, studies show they eat various vegetables, fruits, and seeds.

Eastern cottontails known for their large hind feet, are chunky and either reddish or greyish brown in colour. Their undersides and short tails are both white; their tail has a small rusty patch on it. Their long ears and large brown eyes are perfect to see and hear danger from a distance with. Rabbits can pick up sounds from up to three kilometres (km) away. They have a field of vision of almost 360 degrees which allows them to see their predators coming from almost every direction without moving their heads.

Lucky Rabbit’s Foot

In some cultures, carrying a rabbit’s foot is thought to be lucky. This was popular in the Celtic heritage. Some tribes that considered themselves to be descended from rabbits or hares would worship them. Carrying the rabbit’s foot as an amulet was a phallic symbol or totem that was believed to bring good fortune, increased fertility and a bountiful harvest. Eastern cottontails can run up to 30 km away. Being quick on their feet is essential to a rabbit’s survival, as they have several predators including foxes, coyotes, bobcats, owls, hawks,  and snakes. The average lifespan of an eastern cottontail rabbit is 15 months, but they have been known to live up to five years. Those that spend their life in captivity live nine years or longer.

All in a fluffle 

Male rabbits are referred to as bucks; females are called does. Wild rabbits are social creatures that live in groups called a fluffle. Fluffles often live in a warren – a network of underground burrows. Male rabbits are promiscuous. Reproductive maturity for rabbits begins as early as two to three months; the breeding season is year-round. Most does begin breeding the first spring after their birth. Ten to 36 per cent of females will breed as juveniles as early as the summer of their birth. The gestation period ranges from 25 to 35 days. Eastern cottontails have three to four litters per year, averaging five baby rabbits, known as kittens or kits, in each one. They are born with a fine coat of hair and are blind until their eyes begin to open four to seven days later. They are completely independent by the time they are five weeks old.

Abundant bunnies

Rabbits symbolize fertility, luck, and creativity. In Indigenous cultures, rabbits are lighthearted tricksters that are also a symbol of rainfall and prosperity to come. Rabbits are the fourth and the luckiest out of the 12 animals on the Chinese zodiac. In the Chinese culture they symbolize mercy, elegance, and beauty. People born in the Year of the Rabbit are known to be artistic, calm, and peaceful.