Who brought the eggs and candy – hare or rabbit?

Now that the Easter Bunny has come and gone, we can all turn our thoughts to those important after-Easter questions like, “Who really is the Easter Bunny?”

Is it a rabbit or a hare (different genuses of the same family, Leporidae), what does it eat, and what are its characteristics? Except for the die-hard Easter Bunny historians, how much do we really know about this mysterious mammal delivering eggs and candy to our little ones?

Well, for one thing, it is a rabbit, not a hare. “Bunny” is actually a colloquial term for a young rabbit, while a young hare is called a leveret. Now that we have established that the Easter Bunny is indeed a rabbit, it is interesting to explore some of the differences and similarities between these two animals that are often confused because of their similar physical characteristics.

Rabbits are social creatures and live in colonies, while hares are solitary animals and only come together for mating season. In Lewis Carroll’s time, when he wrote Alice in Wonderland, and included a character called the “Mad March Hare,” he reflected the popular phrase of his time, “Mad as a March hare.” Although hares live alone as a rule, they came together in March for some very elaborate mating behavior.

Rabbits are born blind and hairless, while hares are born able to see. Usually hares are larger than rabbits, with longer ears and black markings. They also make their nests above ground, while rabbits (except the cottontail) live in burrows underground. Rabbits’ eyes are farther back on their heads. They are positioned so they can cover large areas and see behind without turning their heads. Both hares and rabbits molt, or lose their hair, every year in the spring and fall. Hares, however, often grow whiter hair in the winter in snowy regions.

Hares and rabbits are both vegetarians, although hares prefer harder vegetation, such as bark, twigs and shoots, while rabbits prefer softer varieties, such as grass or soft stems. Rabbits, with their smaller size and shorter ears, are slightly “cuter” by human standards and have thus been domesticated as pets, while the more solitary hare remains the wilder relative. Colorado has three species of hares (the snowshoe hare, the black-tail jack rabbit and the white-tailed jack rabbit), and three species of rabbits (the mountain cottontail, the desert cottontail and the eastern cottontail).

It must be that the Easter Bunny actually gets its work done by using its giant colony of relatives to make deliveries because the faster of the two animals is definitely the hare. Rabbits rely on short bursts of speed and zigzagging patterns before burrowing or hiding. Hares prefer to outrun predators. With their longer, stronger legs, they can maintain speeds of more than 40 mph for a mile or more. They can jump 10 feet in one hop and are even good swimmers if they need to make an escape. If a rabbit and a hare were in a race, the hare would definitely come out the winner (unless there was a tortoise involved).

Speaking of races, be sure and come support Durango Nature Studies at our annual Earth Day 5K at 11 a.m. April 21 at For the Birds. Pick up registration forms at Brown’s Sport Shoe, Backcountry Experience, or on our website. Hares and rabbits may not be competing, but it’s a great way to raise awareness for their habitat and run off a little of that Easter candy.

sally@durangonaturestudies.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.

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