Montana's white-tailed jackrabbit



By Ryan L. Rauscher

On an evening drive home, my 5-year-old son shattered the silence by exclaiming, "Look  Daddy. The snow turned that rabbit white!"  A moment or two later, he continued, "I  liked it better before because I could see him better."  Little did my son realize it, but he  had just described the phenomenon of adaptation in the finest of detail.  The snow-white rabbit he was referring to was actually a hare, commonly called the white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii).

In Montana, two species of jackrabbits exist, with the slightly larger white-tailed 
jackrabbit being the most widespread.  The black-tailed jackrabbit is restricted to two 
southwestern counties.  As the vernacular names imply, the major difference between the species is the coloration of the tail.  

White-tailed jackrabbits are the largest lagomorphs in the state.  Their large size and 
coloration differentiates them from the 7 other rabbits and hares found here.  From 
November to April in the northern portion of its range, jackrabbits are entirely white 
except for a grayish forehead and the black-tipped ears.  In the summer months, the 
upperparts are a light grayish brown.  In the southern extent of its range, jackrabbits have adapted to the infrequent snows and only the sides of the animal become white while the back retains the buffy-gray tinge.  In a sense, my son was right; the snow had turned the jackrabbit white.

A favorite table fare of early settlers, white-tailed jackrabbits are pursued by eagles, 
coyotes, foxes and hawks.  Molting twice annually and changing its color with the season aids this hare in eluding predators.  To avoid predators during the day, jackrabbits seek protection in a hollowed-out depression, known as a form, in the lee of a rock, post or vegetation.  During winter, the forms are dug in snow banks and occasionally snow burrows, several feet in depth may be excavated.  Throughout the day, the hare sits in its form with only its eyes and depressed ears above the surface.  When alarmed, they catapult out of the form with ears erect and tail extended, quickly reaching speeds of up to 40 mph. They may take an occasional spy hop, to get a better view of what caused the alarm.  Intermittently, the may stand erect on the tips of the hind foot and look back briefly before resuming flight.  After short bursts of supreme effort, the hare settles down into a series of low gliding leaps, which may cover from four to seventeen feet of ground. 

If the predator gets too close, jackrabbits will run in a zigzag pattern to escape.  They 
have been known to use barbed wire fences to elude avian predators running under the wire to avoid the swoops of hawks and eagles.  

Preferring the open grasslands of the state, they are strict herbivores. They rely on fresh grasses and forbs during the summer.  In winter, jackrabbits seek out nutritious woody shrubs and other forbs protruding from the snow.  They may frequent haystacks or shelterbelts that provide both cover and food.  Like most lagomorphs, jackrabbits re-ingest soft fecal pellets.  The practice, known as coprophagy, helps the hare to retain valuable minerals and vitamins produced in the digestive process.  

Primarily a solitary animal and strictly nocturnal, jackrabbits will congregate around 
pockets of available food during winter and during the breeding season.   Mating takes  place from early March to July.  The gestation period lasts 40 days when three to four  precocial leverets are born in a well-hidden shallow form. By the time they are two weeks  old, the leverets can run as fast as a boy and are eating some green vegetation.  At two months of age, the leverets are about half the size of the adult rabbit and become independent. White-tailed jackrabbits may have up to 4 litters a year in the southern portion of their range while the northern populations will raise only one litter annually. 

As I slowed the vehicle down, letting the jackrabbit escape the mesmerizing glow of the headlights, the young, inquisitive mind sitting next to me asked the question parents often dread; Why?  "Why did the snow turn the rabbit white?"   Seeking an answer to preserve the innocence and wonder of childhood as well as the spirit of the season, I answered, "It must have been a Christmas snow".  Content with the answer, he returned his gaze to the road ahead, watching for the next Christmas miracle to appear.

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