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The Black-tailed Jackrabbit Has A Need For Speed

jackrabbit running away

You'll most often see this desert resident in the early morning, frozen next to a sage bush, ears up, eyes wide. If you get too close, he'll launch into an impossibly long trajectory, not touching the ground for 15 feet or more in a single leap, then dash away in a zigzag pattern, reaching speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. Early western settlers called it the "jackass rabbit" because of its long ungainly ears, but its shortened name jackrabbit does a better job connoting the firecracker explosiveness of his speed and zippy maneuvers.

Like most desert animals, the jackrabbit is specially designed to live in a harsh, hot landscape. Those long ears, which are practically translucent when the light hits them the right way, help him to detect the sounds of a potential predator but also give the many blood vessels inside plenty of room to cool the blood to help prevent overheating, kind of like a radiator in a car. Jackrabbits need very little water, and usually get enough from the grasses and other vegetation they eat, so they don't need to live near or travel to water holes very frequently. They do need to eat a lot, however, and fifteen jackrabbits can consume as much forage as one large cow, which makes them a menace to ranchers and farmers in some areas.

Their long, powerful hind legs and amazing running skills make them an even or better match for most of their natural predators which include coyotes, bobcats and owls.

Your average domestic dog, no matter how excited it may be about the chase, generally doesn't stand a chance with a jackrabbit. They're built to escape, which means they don't worry much about hiding themselves, and will usually lounge in a shallow depression they've dug in the ground, preferably in the shade, rather than in a nest or burrow.

jackrabbit running sideways

This is an important difference between the jackrabbit, which is considered a hare, and its fellow desert dweller the desert cottontail, a rabbit.

Rabbits are more compact and lack the long hind legs of hares, so they protect themselves by plunging into thick brush and digging deep burrows rather than engaging in long chases in the open. They differ in their child rearing methods as well. A rabbit will find a safe hidden place and build a nest of fur, grasses and soft bark, where she'll give birth to her young who are born blind and hairless and need her protection for a couple of months. The jackrabbit momma however, raises her young according to "tough love" principles. The young hares (or "leverets") are born with eyes open, fur on, and more or less ready to go. She simply drops them on the dusty ground, nurses for a few weeks then takes off to let them fend for themselves.

jackrabbit alert

While its theme is more about the application of cunning against athletic prowess, a Tewa story about a rabbit hunt also illustrates the behavioral difference between hares and rabbits. In "Coyote's Rabbit Chase," Coyote and Badger meet up one morning and Coyote, feeling full of vim and verve, challenges his chunky, waddling little friend to a contest to see who can catch the most rabbits. The prize: a night with the loser's wife. Badger reluctantly agrees, and the games begin. Coyote spies a jackrabbit (a hare), and confident in his own superior agility and endurance, eagerly begins the chase, which lasts all day, zigging and zagging over hill and dale. Finally, Coyote prevails, and dripping with sweat and faint with exhaustion, drags his prey back to the starting place, where he's sure Badger is sitting empty-handed. However, while Coyote was tearing across the landscape after one speedy hare, Badger had found a burrow full of snoozing rabbits, and with his big claws dug in and caught them unawares, one by one, until he had a big pile of prey. Badger won the bet, and Coyote had to suffer the indignity of sharing his wife with Badger, and his wife's rage the next day.

Article by Sarah Horton.

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