Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bunny Behaviors

Mountain cottontail (c) John Ashley
Mountain cottontail, ears down, ears up, sideways to the threat
Take heart, fellow pacifists, for the bunnies of the world are succeeding quite well, thank you. All it requires is commitment to a set of passive behaviors to avoid the aggressive animals who'd like to have them over for lunch.

Keeping your cool goes a long ways towards survival for our local rabbits and hares. Here in western Montana, we have lots of laid back mountain cottontails (Sylvilagus nuttallii) and chilling snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus). The cottontails are easy to identify by their small size, relatively short and rounded ears, and a distinctive brown nape on the back of the head. Some biologist types also call them Nuttall's cottontail, while most of us just call them cute bunnies.

Cottontails rely on a caravan of cryptic behaviors to keep out of sight. First, they are crepuscular. This means they restrict most of their activity to dawn and dusk. Their brown fur helps them blend in with the grasses they eat in the wooded and brushy habitats where they live. Snowshoe hares go a step further by moulting to a white fur during winter. (This moult, however, is driven by day length and not temperature, so climate change might eventually leave hares out of sync with their background color.)

young cottontail (c) John AshleyWhen a bunny catches the sight or sound of a potential threat, they turn perpendicular to it and freeze. Their vision does not overlap between their eyes, so turning sideways faces one eye square on. It also turns a radar-like ear towards the threat, but the ears are lowered at first. The ears only come up after the bunny realizes it's been spotted.

Once spotted, the bunny runs a few meters and freezes again, this time with the ears up. If shelter is available, it will hide in brushy thickets or rock crevices. If none are nearby, the speedy bunny will run in a semicircular path to get away from its pursuer.

Of course, not all bunnies avoid their aggressors or we would soon be overrun with them. That's because bunnies also employ certain reproductive behaviors as part of their successful strategy.

Solitary cottontails are actively on the move all year, except when the female is nesting. The adults do not form pair bonds and only become social during courtship and mating, which only occurs under the cover of darkness. A female can bear 4-5 litters each year, averaging 5 young per litter. The youngsters are born blind and naked, and are weened at 28 days. Young males and females both can become sexually mature as early as 90 days old, but often older.

So basically bunnies succeed by laying low, reproducing at a young age, and reproducing often. It's sort of like a furry version of America's 1960's all over again. Be cool, dude, and love some bunny tonight.