Calgary

Rabbit versus hare: how to tell what you're looking at

All of Alberta's native rabbits and hares are strictly herbivores with long ears, short tails and larger feet designed for jumping. But that's about where the similarities end.

They may look similar, but there are stark differences that are evident right from birth

The white-tailed jackrabbit hare, left, is distinguished from the cottontail rabbit, right, by its longer, black-tipped ears and larger, stronger hind legs. (CBC/Alberta Environment and Parks)

Now that the weather has warmed, wild hares are scurrying through Calgary, leaping through fields and munching on now-green grass — or are those rabbits? 

The fact is, it can be hard to tell. Even they way they're named is confusing. Alberta's native white-tailed jackrabbit is actually a hare. Go figure.

Alberta has three native species of lagomorphs, the scientific order that encompasses rabbits and hares. They are the cottontail rabbit, the snowshoe hare and the aforementioned white-tailed jackrabbit.

From left: The cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare and white-tailed jackrabbit are the three types of native rabbit and hare in Alberta. (Alberta Environment and Parks)

All three are strictly herbivores with long ears, short tails and larger feet designed for jumping. That's about where the similarities end.

Helpless bunnies

Rabbit babies — also called kits, kittens or bunnies — are born blind and without fur.

"They really depend on their parents or a social group to care for them," said Brett Boukall, senior wildlife biologist with the province.

Baby hares — also known as leverets — are born covered in fur and with the ability to see, making them able to fend for themselves right from the outset.

Physical appearance

In general, bunnies are smaller and slower than hares, who have larger ears and feet and stronger hind legs. 

The jackrabbit hare's long, powerful hind legs allow it to leap farther and run faster than rabbit lagomorphs. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

The white creatures you see skittering around in winter are hares, not wild rabbits.

Both animals moult throughout the year, but Alberta's native rabbits stay brown or grey year-round, whereas wild hares gradually turn white as winter approaches.

This snowshoe hare as it appears in winter has a fully white coat of fur that acts as camouflage in the prairie snow. (Alberta Environment and Parks)

"Both the whitetail jackrabbit and the snowshoe hare depend on that colour change to help them blend in," Boukall explained.

"The cottontail, because it stays close to thickets in the prairie bottoms, doesn't really need to change its fur colour as often, because brown tends to help it blend in better."

Socializing

Rabbits live primarily in colonies, while hares live a more solitary life, coming together only to pair or mate.

Rabbits also burrow and build their nests underground, whereas hares build nests above ground.

"You never find them, because as soon as they're born, they're gone," Boukall said, referring to hare nests.

Rabbits Hares
Birth Born blind, without fur Born with ability to see, covered in fur
Size Smaller ears, weaker hind legs Larger in general, with stronger hind legs, bigger ears and feet
Nesting Tend to burrow, babies are born underground Do not burrow, build nests above ground
Social behaviour Live in colonies, more social Live a more solitary life, only meeting to pair or mate

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