Chasing rabbits: Edmonton hares multiplying like rabbits
'The city is what they call a predator shadow ... there are more places for the bunnies to hide'
They bound down back alleys, burrow in parks and hop through backyards, devouring vegetable gardens whole.
White-tailed jackrabbits are thriving in Edmonton's urban landscape, and are breeding like, well, rabbits.
Their numbers within city limits have leaped from an estimated 400 animals in the early 1990s to more than 2,500, according to population surveys conducted by Edmonton biologist John Wood.
"The city is what they call a predator shadow. The predators don't do as well here. There are more places for the bunnies to hide. They have more escape routes, and their strategy for survival is high speed."
Wood, dean of the faculty of natural sciences and professor of biology and environmental studies at The King's University, has been studying Edmonton's jackrabbit population for more than 15 years.
"We're always worried about species going extinct and our impact on them. This is a species that actually does better with us, than it does out in the countryside," Wood said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
"They're really thriving here in the city."
The 'predator shadow'
Wood said rural populations of the hares continue to decline due to increased development, which leaves the animals exposed to predators.
The hare population in the Edmonton countryside is only 1/100th as dense as populations within city limits.
"You can drive like crazy through the countryside at night, and I've done it. We can drive 120 to 150 kilometres on our routes and we won't see an animal.
"If you go out in the countryside, and take a look, you can look straight across those fields. It's just wide open. You can see anything that moves."
The hare invasion
Jackrabbits are a relatively new species in the Edmonton area. Throngs of the creatures first appeared in the region in the early 1920s, in tandem with a wave of new human settlers.
As new farms cropped up on the landscape, jackrabbits expanded their traditional range from the prairie grasslands south of Red Deer, and started moving further north. Their proliferation made them an unwelcome pest for homesteaders.
"You had all that opening up of agricultural land, and the hare population in the province really soars," Wood said.
"They had these huge outbreaks and they would have these rabbit drives out on the prairies where they would round them up and kill them because there were such massive numbers."
Now the hares have found new refuge in the city.
A bunny buffet
Not only does the urban landscape provide refuge from wolves, coyotes and hawks, there are plenty of buds, bark and bushes to munch on through the long winter months.
"You need places where you can deposit your young, and there are lots of little places where they can hide out," Wood said.
"It's not just the lack of predators, it's the presence of food. There's lots of winter food here. We have lots of interesting plants around our houses, as most people will tell you."
Although jackrabbits continue to thrive in Edmonton's river valley and older residential neighbourhoods, Wood said there is no reason to worry about a population explosion.
Hares home bound
Busy roads will continue to keep the numbers in check, and Edmonton's new neighbourhoods are filled with poor habitat.
"High-density housing is really challenging for these animals. They don't have space to move between the houses, the fences go right to the ground," said Wood.
"Those areas are just dead ends. You can drive up and down those streets and see nothing. They need greenspace."
For those chasing white rabbits out of their backyards, take comfort in the knowledge that you're likely seeing the same animal every time.
"You're seeing the same animal again and again," Wood said.
"They have a lot of fidelity to their home. They spend the day in a small depression that they'll dig in your lawn, which is a nuisance, or maybe under a shrub or a porch, and they'll come back to that again and again."