More than 15 species of rabbits, pikas and hares, collectively referred to as lagomorphs, are widely distributed across North America. Washington State is home to eight of these species—six native species: Nuttall’s Cottontail, Pygmy Rabbit, Pika, Snowshoe Hare, Black-tailed Jackrabbit and White-tailed Jackrabbit and two non-native or introduced species: Eastern Cottontail and Domestic Rabbit.
Although most of the lagomorph species in Washington are found in the Cascades and to the east, the most common seen in western Washington are Snowshoe Hares (Lepus americanus) and Eastern Cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus). Snowshoe Hares spend their time mostly up in the Cascades and you may see them on an early morning summer hike. Eastern Cottontails were introduced into Washington as game animals beginning in the 1930s. They have adapted to living in urban areas and are the brown rabbits you commonly see in city parks and in your backyard.
Pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) are the smallest rabbit species in North America and are listed as endangered in Washington and the Black-tailed (Lepus californicus) and White-tailed Jackrabbits (Lepus townsendii) are also in decline, making them candidate species for state listing and protection.
Did you know? There are currently 87 different recognized species of lagomorph worldwide, almost 30 percent of which are endangered.
Snowshoe Hares are dark brown with a tail that is dusky to white on the underside. In Western Washington they remain this color year round, but in snowy regions they may be all white or white mottled with brown. The large hind feet of the Snowshoe Hare have well-furred soles, especially in winter. Juveniles have much coarser hair than Eastern Cottontails. Adult Snowshoe Hares range in weight from just under two pounds to a little over three pounds.
Eastern Cottontails are grayish-brown on top, interspersed with some black, and they often have a white spot on their forehead. They have a rusty patch at the nape of the neck, whitish feet and a short tail that is cottony-white on the underside. Adult cottontails weigh between two and four pounds.
Did you know? Rabbits have an excellent sense of smell, hearing and vision. They can even see behind them and have a small blind spot in front of their nose.
Snowshoe Hares prefer to inhabit forests, thickets, swamps and mountainous areas, whereas cottontails prefer mixed habitat of brush, forested strips with open areas nearby, swamp edges and weed patches in the lowlands.
Females of most rabbit species create shallow bowl-like nests called forms and line them with leaves, grass and fur. Cottontail nests are difficult to detect, even in grassy lawns, so the young are very susceptible to injury from lawnmowers and weed-eaters. Some domestic rabbits and the pygmy rabbit excavate burrows for their dens.
Snowshoe Hares do not build a nest or burrow because their young are precocial and don’t require that extra protection.
Development and Family Structure
Rabbits differ from hares in their reproduction. Rabbits give birth to hairless, blind young that require a lot of maternal care, while hares give birth to fully furred leverets that have their eyes open and are able to hop around within hours of being born.
Both Snowshoe Hares and Eastern Cottontails are prolific breeders. Snowshoe Hares have two to three litters of one to seven young between April and August and Eastern Cottontails have as many as four litters of four to seven young during spring and summer.
Did you know? Juvenile Snowshoe Hares can disperse from their mother at one month old.
Both species feed on grasses and other vegetation in summer and switch to plant buds and cambium during winter. Both also help themselves to garden and ornamental plants.
Snowshoe Hares and Eastern Cottontails are mostly active at dusk and dawn and at night, passing the day under thick brush, branches of trees or in a burrow. Both species are mostly solitary. Snowshoe Hare males aggressively fight for females, where Cottontail adults form hierarchies and show their dominance by chasing out subordinate males.
Both of these species use visual, chemical, tactile, vocal and mechanical cues to communicate. Adults thump the ground with their hind feet as an alarm signal. Both species also give off a high pitched scream when captured or injured.
All lagomorph species are important prey for carnivores including lynx, bobcats, hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes. Because of this they have developed tactics to avoid being captured by predators. Snowshoe Hares are fast runners and have the ability to break into a full run from a sitting position, attaining bursts of speeds of 25 to 35 miles per hour. When pursued by a predator, Cottontails run and jump in a zigzag pattern to break up their scent. Rabbits and hares also use their cryptic coloration to hide from predators.
Did you know? Snowshoe Hare and Canada Lynx populations closely linked. Snowshoe Hare populations experience dramatic fluctuations every eight to 11 years and as a result, so do Canada Lynx.
Living with Rabbits
Conflicts with rabbits and hares are closely tied to their nutritional needs. During summer they often eat fresh garden plants and flowers. During winter they nibble on small trees and shrubs. This often does not sit well with gardeners and property owners. There are several options to discourage rabbits or prevent them from gaining access to your plants.
If you are trying to protect individual plants or a garden patch, a two- to three-foot chicken wire fence supported by metal stakes should do the trick. An additional one-foot length of chicken wire placed flat on the ground stretching outward from the fence will help prevent rabbits from digging under it. Stake down this horizontal piece of fencing so animals do not attempt to wriggle underneath.
If you have an existing fence, you can rabbit-proof it by attaching chicken wire to the bottom two feet and including the one-foot skirt as described above. You will also need to ensure that any gates fit tightly enough that rabbits will not be able to squeeze or burrow underneath.
Make plants undesirable
You can buy a variety of scent and taste repellents at lawn and garden shops that claim to be effective. Predator urine, blood meal, taste deterrents made with putrescent whole-egg solids and a variety of other concoctions can be bought or made at home. Most of these products have not been studied to determine their effectiveness, but many gardeners swear by them.
Lastly, you can plant rabbit-resistant shrubs and flowers. There are not many plants rabbits won't eat if the need arises, but there are many not on their list of favorites.
Burke Museum. January 31, 2016. Mammals of Washington: Lagomorpha
Environment and Natural Resources. January 31, 2016. Lynx-Snowshoe Hare Cycle
Feldhamer G.A., Thompson B.C. & Chapman J.A. (Eds). (2003). Wild Mammals of North America, Biology, Management, and Conservation (2nd ed.). Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. January 31, 2016. Snowshoe Hare
State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. January 31, 2016. Eastern Cottontail
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. January 31, 2016. Living with Wildlife: Rabbits