People passionate about nature

White-tailed Jackrabbit

(Lepus townsendii)

by Deanna Dodgson

“As the sun was going down, we saw the first specimen of an animal known familiarly over two thousand miles of mountain and desert--from Kansas clear to the Pacific Ocean--as the "jackass rabbit." He is well named. He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but a jackass.” So wrote Samuel Clemens, later known as Mark Twain, in his adventure novel “Roughing It”. Subsequently, these long-eared leporids became widely known as “jackrabbits”. 

Jackrabbits are not rabbits at all, of course, but hares. In addition to the physical traits mentioned above, there are also other differences - female White-tailed Jackrabbits usually give birth to four or five fully-furred young called leverets. Unlike young rabbits, known as kittens or kits, leverets are active soon after birth and are sighted. 

The White-tailed Jackrabbit, or prairie hare, is superbly adapted to life in the open, short to mid-height grassy environments it prefers. This includes native prairie, grasslands and alpine meadows, as well as agricultural areas, airports, industrial properties and even city yards. 

Cryptically coloured in brown above and white below in summer, the White-tailed Jackrabbit blends easily into its grassy surroundings. In the northern parts of the species' range, the fur on the hare's upperside turns white and becomes thicker with the approach of winter. The ears are tipped in black all year long, and of course the tail is white or mostly so.

Above: A White-tailed Jackrabbit in summer coat – RM of Brokenhead – June 2, 2015 by Sandra Coté

Excellent hearing, a strong sense of smell and acute vision provide the White-tailed Jackrabbit with the tools required to detect its enemies; it also possesses great agility and fleetness of foot . Once a predator is sighted, the adult jackrabbit will first freeze in place, hoping to evade them by “hiding in the plain sight”. If this tactic fails, the White-tailed Jackrabbit explodes from hiding and takes flight, reaching speeds of 55 to 80 kms per hour! Leaping or hopping above the height of the grasses allows them to keep track of a predator's location. Swimming to avoid predation has also been documented. 

Above: A White-tailed Jackrabbit keeps a watchful eye on the observer – Oak Hammock Marsh – May 2, 2009 by Deanna Dodgson

A mid-sized mammal, White-tailed jackrabbits occupy an important niche in the food chain. Coyotes are a principal predator throughout much of the jackrabbit's range, and population cycles are likely dependent, at least in part, to the degree of predation. Other predators include eagles, large hawks and owls, wolves, foxes, cougars, bobcats, badgers and weasels.

In summer, the so-called “preposterous ears”, chock full of blood vessels, aid in dissipating excess body heat through a process known as vasolidation. Crepuscular or nocturnal habits also guard against activity during the hottest parts of the day. During active periods from spring to fall, White-tailed Jackrabbits feed on grasses and broad-leaved plants. In winter, shrubs and woody vegetation provide much of their sustenance. Some cultivated crops and waste grains are also eaten if available. 

Above: White-tailed jackrabbit in winter - RM of St. Clements – March 10, 2020 by Sandra Coté

White-tailed jackrabbits were historically found throughout the northern Great Plains region of western Canada (including southern Manitoba), and western and central United States. Today, the species is considered extirpated, or nearly so, in several US states and at least one province (British Columbia). 

A diet staple for several Plains Indigenous tribes, the White-tailed Jackrabbit was otherwise widely considered a crop pest. Circle drives, in which hares were driven and shot, use of bounties and strychnine poisoning were once used to control their numbers, sometimes with catastrophic results. Recreational hunting continues to this day in many parts of the species' range. 

Wherever the White-tailed Jackrabbit is still to be found, the alteration and fragmentation of habitat may prove to be the biggest hurdles to the continued good fortunes of this prairie hare.