I think it must be due to the characteristics of the two kinds of habitats. Both areas are part of the South Texas brush country, but the ranch is further southwest where the climate is more arid. There, the brush is a little thinner with open areas of sparse grass. Our farm’s brush is denser. Any open areas we must maintain by mowing regularly. There aren’t many naturally open spaces in our thick brush.
A habitat determines the species that use it. Some species are suited for heavy cover with clearings, senderos and roadsides. Others are superbly adapted to arid lands with rocky open spaces and scattered brush.
Eastern Cottontails spend most of the day in dense brush. They are likely sitting quietly in a favored hollow. At dawn and dusk they venture out into pastures and lawns to feed on grasses and tender vegetation. They are never very far out in the open. If danger threatens, cottontails make a mad dash back to the brush.
Jackrabbits, on the other hand, spend much of their time in the open. In hot, arid climates their large ears serve as both air conditioners and antennas. Excess body heat is dissipated through the thin ears. And those ears can pick up the slightest sound.
Jackrabbits take a rest during the heat of the day dozing in a form. A form is a slight depression at the base of shrub or bunchgrass, or beside a rock. In the cool of the evening, jackrabbits come out to feed on grasses and brush country plants. If a predator approaches, jackrabbits use their long legs to leap (up to 20 feet!) and rapidly distance themselves from danger across open country.
Both cottontails and jackrabbits belong to the same group, the Lagomorpha, which includes rabbits, hares and the pika. The pika is a small mammal found around rockpiles in the mountains of the western United States. All of the lagomorphs are herbivores, and they have distinctive teeth for the job of grazing. They have two pairs of incisors. The front pair is chisel-like, giving them a “buck-toothed” appearance (think of the cartoon character Bugs Bunny).
I am sure you have heard that hares are different from rabbits. In fact, the cottontail is a rabbit. And the jackrabbit is actually a hare.
So what makes a hare, a hare? It’s simple. Hares have hair. Jackrabbits, being hares, are born well furred, and their eyes are open. In just a few hours after birth, baby hares are capable of running. They spend only a short time in the birth nest. And it isn’t much of a nest either, just a scrape on the ground, and may not even be lined.
In contrast, rabbits are born naked, and their eyes are closed. Baby rabbits are quite helpless, so the mother cottontail constructs a nest. It is a pear-shaped hole in the ground with only a narrow entrance at the top. Rabbit nests are lined with plant material and some of the mother’s soft fur. It is a comfy place for the baby bunnies to live until they grow some hair and their eyes open.
The nest cavity is too small for the mother cottontail to get in it with her youngsters. So, to nurse them, she squats over the hole. I think that would be funny to see. I suspect few people have ever seen a wild rabbit nursing her young. And we probably wouldn’t be aware of what she was doing, anyway!
Like most rodents, many insects and some birds, the lagomorphs are first-order consumers. These are animals that consume an all-plant diet. They are the first ones to reap the green plants’ bounty. Plants trap solar energy and convert it to food energy. The process is known as photosynthesis. Most of this energy is stored in the chemical bonds of sugars and starches.
When a first-order consumer eats a plant, it transfers the sugar-and-starch energy into the chemical bonds of proteins (and some fats). Protein and fat are valuable energy sources for many other animals (the predators). This means that the first-order consumers are PREY.
The lagomorphs are definitely prey species. Coyotes and bobcats, hawks and owls feast on rabbits and hares. When rabbits and hares are in good supply, these predators are healthy. And the whole ecosystem is healthy.
Of course, prey species have developed adaptations to keep themselves alive as long as possible. One thing that rabbits and hares have done is to be ready to flee in an instant. This means that they often have to eat and run.
So they gulp their food, barely chewing it. Plant matter doesn’t digest thoroughly if it is not well chewed. The lagomorphs have developed another odd adaptation. It is called coprophagia, which means they eat their feces. Their feces is pelleted, partially digested and green. By eating these pellets, they give their digestive tracts another chance to absorb valuable nutrients. And they can do this in the relative safety of their forms and burrows.
So, the next time you see a cottontail or a jackrabbit, think of their role in the food chain, and their amazing adaptations. And let me know if you ever come across a mother rabbit nursing her babies!