Out & About: Here comes Peter Cottontail

An Eastern cottontail, with it's large ears and eyes, have a keen sense of sight and hearing.

Hippity-hop, hippity-hop-the rabbit kept moving down the trail in front of me. I just couldn’t seem to catch-up with the furry critter to snap a decent photo. Every time I took a few steps, the small beast took a few hops. This went on for almost 30 minutes until the animal simply dashed away into the brush. As I returned to my van, I looked up to see another one sitting quietly next to my front tire, and of course, it took a few hops forward as well. “Nope, don’t follow it. They’re playing bunny games with you!” I whispered to myself, as if someone were listening. I would get my chance at a later date with this common, but elusive mammal, the Eastern cottontail.

Eastern cottontails, better known as rabbits, or bunnies, are one of the most common mammals in Pennsylvania. They have long ears, brown fur and long back legs which allow them to hop and jump. Their name comes from their round, fluffy, white tail. They inhabit brushy areas, old fields and thickets in towns and rural areas and will use an abandoned woodchuck hole as a burrow. Their home range is fairly small, feeding close to where they can escape to cover. Cottontails are herbivores. In spring and summer and fall, they eat grasses, clover, vegetables and fruit when available. In the winter, they’ll browse on twigs, bark, buds and even poison ivy vines. Rabbits have a keen sense of hearing and very good eyesight. Their eyes are set far back on their heads, which allow them to see in almost any direction-another good adaptation to escape predators such as fox, coyotes and birds of prey. What’s the difference between a rabbit and a hare?

Biologically, rabbits differ from hares because of their young. Baby rabbits are born blind and without fur. Young hares can see when first born and have fur. But generally, the most noticeable difference between the two species is that hares are usually larger with longer ears and larger hind legs than rabbits. In addition, the fur of hares can change color in winter to an all-white coat, where a rabbit’s fur does not. Pennsylvania’s only hare is the Snowshoe hare, which is uncommon, living only in a few areas of the northern mountains. One thing hares and cottontails have in common is that both have been the focus of many children’s stories, songs and even cartoons.

After their success with Christmas songs like Here Comes Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, the musical duo of Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the tribute to the Easter Bunny, Here Comes Peter Cottontail in 1950. Many kids (and adults), sing the words at this time of the year hoping for a few gifts and chocolate that the Easter Bunny may leave for us. Songs are not the only place these critters have turned up. How many of us have read the words of a boastful hare in Aesop’s Fable the Tortoise and the Hare, or followed Alice and the White Rabbit down his hole into Wonderland, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (Macmillan, 1865). We also shadowed the perils of a group of rabbits and the loss of their “warren” in Richard Adams’ classic book Watership Down (Rex Collings Ltd., 1972). Each in their own way has rooted rabbits forever in our imaginations! But there’s still one famous bunny that is known world-wide. His catch phrase, “Eh….. What’s up doc?” is still repeated in cartoons today.

His name is Bugs Bunny. He was created in 1940 and brought to life by Warner Bros. His carrot-carrying personality has become the face of the cartoon series, Looney Tunes. Many Saturday mornings have been spent watching Bugs poke fun, outwit and outsmart his never-ending pursuer, Elmer Fudd, who is always on the move “Huntin’ wabbits!”

Call them cottontails, rabbits, or hares, but in the end they’re all bunnies. They’ve charmed us with their stories and songs, and we watch them in our neighborhoods and backyards, and if you look closely, you might see them “hopping down the bunny trail!’ Happy Easter!