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The Country Life: You don't know jack(rabbits)

June 3, 2014 Updated: June 3, 2014 at 5:50 pm
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A jackrabbit races across a field in eastern El Paso County. BILL RADFORD, THE GAZETTE

We were walking our dogs, Hank and Blue. As they tugged at their leashes, desperate to race after jackrabbits in a nearby field, my daughter made a keen observation.

Jackrabbits, she said, are the squirrels of the country - at least in terms of something for the dogs to chase.

It's true: While squirrels were plentiful in our tree-lined neighborhood in Colorado Springs (there's the classic family tale of the dead, frozen squirrel that fell out of a tree onto our son Ryan's head one winter), they're nowhere to be seen in the open grasslands of our area of eastern El Paso County.

But there are jackrabbits. There are cottontails, too, but it's the jackrabbits, with their enormous ears and feet, that draw attention; they have an alien appearance as they race across the pasture.

I got curious about the critters and decided to do some research. Here's what I learned.

- First of all, despite their name, jackrabbits aren't actually rabbits; they're hares. What's the difference? Hares are bigger than rabbits and typically have taller hind legs and longer ears.

- National Geographic's website says jackrabbits were named for their ears, which caused some people to call them "jackass rabbits." Mark Twain brought that name to fame in his book "Roughing It." The name was later shortened to jackrabbit.

- Jackrabbit populations seem to be disappearing here and there; white-tailed jackrabbits, once abundant in Greater Yellowstone (an ecosystem including Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks) have vanished from the area, according to a study a few years ago in the journal Oryx. No cause was detailed.

- They're fast, reaching speeds of up to 40 mph, and are also known to run in a zigzag pattern to escape predators. Hank, a red heeler mix, caught one (and, unfortunately, killed it), but it was probably a fluke; it was cornered and couldn't flee at full speed. Although we have seen Hank chase one across the pasture, and it looked to be a pretty close race.

- Jackrabbits are reportedly strong swimmers. Haven't see any in the neighbor's pool, though.

- You can legally hunt jackrabbits; jackrabbit hunting season in Colorado runs from October through February. But it's not clear to me whether they make good eating.

"Yeah, I've ate jackrabbit," says "Jonesy" on HuntChat.com. "Wasn't really impressed, stick to cottontail." A commenter on another forum notes, "One time while deer hunting here in Arizona we attempted to eat a young jackrabbit. Suffice to say next time I'll just eat an old cowboy boot."

Others are more positive, with some touting "Jack chili." Our resident hunting expert at The Gazette, Angelo Stambene, is "a big fan of eating regular rabbits" but hasn't tried jackrabbit.

- A National Park Service article on jackrabbits notes that hares and rabbits are "perhaps nature's ideal prey," with coyotes, foxes, hawks and owls among the eager predators. Cars also take a toll on the jackrabbits and cottontails in our area; I haven't stopped to study the roadkill to determine the hare to rabbit ratio.

- Jackrabbits are nocturnal, feeding chiefly from sunset to sunrise; during the day, they rest in shallow depressions in the ground called "forms." In my neighborhood, sunset is prime jackrabbit viewing time. They're not interested in me getting close enough to get a decent photo, though.

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Bill Radford and his wife live in the country with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford

on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.

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