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December 2009 cover image Birdwatching at San Bernard River National Wildlife refuge

Wild Thing: What’s Up, Doc?

Jackrabbits are not really rabbits at all.

By Sheryl Smith-Rogers

Think jackrabbit, and an image springs to mind: a big rabbit with big ears and big feet, right? But herein lies the problem. Jackrabbits aren’t rabbits; they’re hares. For the misnomer, we can politely thank wildlife artist John James Audubon, who in 1851 dubbed the Texas species as “the jackass rabbit, owing to the length of its ears.”

For the record, newborn rabbits arrive blind, furless and helpless. Not so with baby hares. Soon after birth, they get an eyeful of their surroundings and off they go! Given that black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) rank low on the food chain, it’s understandable why they’re so quick-footed at such a tender age.

Why the big ears? Coupled with keen eyes and noses, they enable jackrabbits to detect coyotes, foxes and other predators. Nocturnal herbivores, they forage in open fields, prairies and deserts, which offer higher visibility. When threatened, jackrabbits will speed away, flash their tails and hop in a zigzag pattern, reaching speeds of 30 miles or more per hour.

They reproduce and grow just as fast. Females mate year-round and can deliver up to six babies six times a year. Though young jackrabbits morph into adults within eight months, females breed for the first time early the next year after their birth.

Tip: Next time you’re in Odessa, hop over to Eighth Street and Sam Houston Avenue for a gander at the world’s largest jackrabbit. Seated on his haunches, Jack Ben Rabbit — a fiberglass statue with its own Texas historical marker — measures a few hairs more than eight feet high, big ears included. (Genuine jacks sit about two feet high.)

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