This time of year the pesky Lagomorph tortures my dog, tears up my garden, reproduces freely and poops indiscriminately….which the dog promptly eats as if it’s a delicacy from a five star restaurant.
So, what the heck is a Lagomorph?
It is any member of the mammalian order made up of rabbits, hares and pikas. The species has 91 members, with Washington State being home to eight. In Eastern Washington there are the Nuttall’s Cottontail, Pygmy Rabbit, Pika, Black-tailed Jackrabbit and White-tailed Jackrabbit. The Snoqualmie Valley is home to four: The Snowshoe Hare, Pika, Eastern Cottontail and, to a lesser extent, the Domestic Rabbit.
Most of the lagomorphs in Washington State are found in the Cascades and East, but two can be seen on the Western slopes of the Cascades. The Snowshoe Hare spends most of its time up in the Cascades where you might see them on a summer hike or their distinctive large footed tracks in the winter. They prefer forests, thickets, swamps and mountainous areas as habitats. In snowy regions their pineal gland senses the change in daylight and triggers a coat change from brown to white. Most Snowshoe Hares in Washington remain a dark brown with a tail that is dusky to white on the underside.
They have large hind feet with furry soles which prevents them from sinking in the snow and protects them from the cold. Weighing in at two to three pounds, like most all lagomorphs, they are bountiful breeders and have two to three litters of up to seven young between April and August. Hares do not burrow or build nests because their young are precocial: born in an advanced state and able to feed themselves almost immediately. Usually solitary animals, their young can disperse as young as one month old.
All Lagomorphs are herbivores, they deal with their fibrous diets by a process known as hindgut fermentation where some of their food is digested immediately and some goes through a longer process to extract more nutrients. After which it is consumed and digested a second time.
Active year round, Snowshoe hares are the diet of choice for Canada Lynx and their populations are closely linked. When the numbers fluctuate on one animal, the other animal experiences the same fate.
The America Pika is a rodentlike animal about the size of a large hamster. Tough little animals, they can live up to seven years in alpine areas where mountain meadows meet rocky terrain. Considered a high elevation species, they have been found at low elevations near sea level in the Columbia River Gorge, and in Snohomish and Skagit counties as low as 1150 feet.
Adapted to life in areas that rarely get above freezing, the pika can overheat and die when exposed to temperatures as low as 78 degrees. The egg-shaped little animal is active all year round feeding on dried vegetation they have stored away in haypiles. During the summer months to prepare for winter, they will collect a pile of extra wildflowers and grasses and lay them out in the sun. After they are dried, to prevent mold, the plants are stored until winter.
Pikas do not proliferate as quickly as hares or rabbits, breeding once or twice a year. After a thirty-day gestational period Pika’s give birth to a litter of 2 to 5. Unlike the hare their offspring is altricial, born in an undeveloped state and requiring care and feeding by the parents. They are weaned by 3 to 4 weeks and reach adult size by three months.
Like the hare, they are solitary, except to breed. They live in colonies but are territorial of their dens and chirp and whistle to define the boundaries with their neighbor Pikas.
Next up is the critter we most see in the valley, the Eastern Cottontail. There are no rabbit’s native to Western Washington. The Eastern Cottontail was introduced as a game animal during the 1930’s. Before that if you wanted to see one, you’d have to travel to Eastern Washington. Since then they have adapted to all types of habitats and you can see these bunnies in city parks, forests and your backyard.
These rabbits are a mottled brown, often with a white stripe on their forehead, whitish feet and a short tail that is white on the underside. They prefer to live in a habitat of brushy, forested strips with open areas nearby, swamp edges and weed patches in the lowlands. In other words, most all of Western Washington. Adult cottontails average 17 inches long and weigh from 2-4 pounds with females tending to be slightly heavier.
The cottontail is crepuscular and most active at dusk, dawn and at night. They pass the day under brush, branches or in a burrow. Famous for their fecundity, they too have a 30-day gestational period, and have several litters containing four to eight young each year. Females create shallow nests that they line with leaves, grass and fur. These nests are difficult to detect, even in grassy lawns, so the young are prone to injury from lawnmowers and other gardening accessories.
Their young, like the Pika, are altricial and require considerable attention for their first two weeks of life. In that time the mother stays away from the nest, only returning at dusk and dawn to nurse her young to keep predators at bay. At the two week mark, the babies begin to eat vegetation and when they are about a month old, they will feed along side their mothers. Like other lagomorphs they are an important prey species for carnivores including lynx, bobcats, hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes. When pursued by these predators, Cottontails run and jump in a zigzag pattern to break up their scent.
Even though these animals were introduced as a game animal, Wild rabbits can be infected with a bacterial disease called tularemia and for that reason the WA Department of Fish & Wildlife “does not recommend capturing the rabbits for human consumption. Humans can contract tularemia by ingesting undercooked rabbit meat or by handling a dead or sick rabbit.” Zoonotic diseases, gotta love them…
Lastly, we have the Domestic rabbit aka the European rabbit or Belgian hare. The ancestor of all 80 varieties of domestic rabbits, this multicolored rabbit is the largest of all at 20 to 30 inches long. Seen most often in the San Juan Islands, they are spreading to other areas in Western Washington where they have been released.
The story is that domestic rabbits were introduced twice to the Islands. The first time, in the early 20th century to a rabbit reserve, most died off during a harsh winter. The second time in the 1930’s when a breeding operation failed. The second time the rabbits thrived destroying crops, gardens and eventually swelling to one million rabbits on San Juan Island in the 70’s. Many tactics were used to control the swelling population but no one can point to the one thing that caused a big die off around 1979. The population is at tolerable level these days but with rabbits who knows how long that will last. You can read more about the San Juan Island bunnies here.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife notes that domestic rabbits in the wild always have an upswing in population around Easter and remind citizens that: “Domestic animals should never be abandoned to fend for themselves. If you have a pet rabbit and no longer want it, take it to an animal adoption center or find a home for it by advertising or putting up signs in local pet shops and animal clinics.” There is concern that domestic rabbits could introduce diseases such as Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease to the wild population or mate with wild rabbits harming the populations.
Lagomorphs inhabit every country in the world except for Antarctica and more than half of the worlds rabbit population live in North America. I guess my dog’s springtime eating habit is not one I can avoid and I should just enjoy watching the cute creatures out the window with my dog.