Wednesday, December 23, 2009

American Jack Rabbit History

A repost from this blog circa February 2006.

A Jack Rabbit is not a rabbit -- it is a hare. The name comes from the fact that early settlers distinguished this animal from the various forms of cotton tail rabbits by comparing the ears of this hare to that of a jack ass. A "jack ass rabbit" became, in time, a "jack rabbit".

American jack rabbits come in two basic flavors -- white-tailed jack rabbits and black-tailed jack rabbits. There is also the snowshoe hare, but it is uncommon in the U.S. which is the southern terminus of its range.

Jack rabbits are so common in much of the drier parts of the American west that in most states the law says you can kill as many as you want, any way you want, on your own property.

Long gunners kill about 2 million jack rabbits in California every year, and the numbers are not in decline as a consequence. Kills by coursing dogs, such as greyhounds, are so rare they do not even register in the statistics.

Truth be told, it is hard to make a dent on jack rabbit populations because they are as prolific as .... well rabbits. Female jack rabbits breed for about half the year (January to July) and have 3 or 4 litters a year with three or four young on average. Gestation is 41 to 47 days, and the young are born alive and running, straight out of the box -- there is no den or nest.

The white-tailed jack rabbit is about 8 pounds and a bit larger than its black-tailed cousin. Fox eat almost no jack rabbits (too big and fast for a fox to catch), but coyotes take quite a few. The main enemy of the jack rabbit is tularemia -- an ugly little disease, and not a very nice way to die.

Jack rabbit hunts are an old tradition in the American West. Hunting them with dogs, however, is certainly less efficient and more sporting than the way it once was done!

The old-fashioned American jack rabbit hunts that occurred in the West were done with snow fencing that would stretch out for a mile or two in a large funnel. Rabbits would then be driven into the funnel and the rabbits would then be penned at the end of the funnel and clubbed to death.

The picture above is of an 1893 Fresno, California bunny roundup with snow fence used as a "boma" to corral the rabbits.

Some jack rabbits were eaten, but the real reason for the jack rabbit roundup was that 15 jack rabbits could supposedly eat about as much as a cow, and while there was a market for cattle hide and salted beef, there was no market for jack rabbit.

Jack rabbit roundups in the American west were not hunting -- they were a failed attempt at extermination.

1894 jack rabbit haul from Lamar, Colorado.

The first greyhound coursing clubs in the U.S.
were a product of the massive rabbit drives pictured above. The healthiest rabbits taken in a jack rabbit drive were sold to coursing clubs (some are far away as Florida!). Today, the live rabbits that were once used in open fields, have been replaced with race tracks in which a mechanical bunny runs down an elevated track. In less formal "lure coursing" trials, a plastic bag is tied to a moving string run across a motor fly wheel and pulleys.

20,000 rabbits taken in one Fresno, Califonira Jack Rabbit roundup, 1893

Around the turn of the 20th Century, the federal government put most of the American West in control of the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, various Indian reservations, and the military. Federal protection of these environmentally marginal lands has meant that jack rabbits have been allowed to breed unfettered by cattlemen for about 100 years now. The cow at McDonald's is probably a feed-lot animal, not a free-range western cow competing head-to-head with jack rabbits. In short, the jack rabbit has never had it so good.

A few greyhounds are still used to course jack rabbits in the West, but they are not much of a threat to jack rabbit populations. The reason for that is pretty simple: A jack rabbit can hit speeds of 40-45 mph and turn on a dime. The few rabbits that are caught are easily replaced through natural reproduction.

In fact, getting chopped by a greyhound may be the best of all possible exits for a jack rabbit. The alternative death is not a hospital bed with a morphine drip and soft music in the background, but debilitating disease, vehicle impact, starvation, or being ripped apart by a coyote, owl, and/or the blast of a shotgun or a .22 rifle. In the litany of ways a rabbit can die, a chop by a practiced greyhound is a good way to go.


Patti McCracken said...

my five year old jack russell chases jack rabbits through the farmers' field in Austria. I allow her to do so when it's not hunting season (like now), but I'm concerned that there is some danger to her that I'm not thinking of.... could the jack rabbits harm her. There are deer around also, and if she takes off after them, could they hurt her (I worry about the antlered males).

PBurns said...

If you're in Austria, it's probably not jack rabbits you dog is chasing (a jack rabbit is actually a kind of hare), but a European rabbit that dens underground (European hares being not too common in most locations anymore).

A dog can go underground following a rabbit, and that should be a concern as a dog can get stuck, suffocate, etc. The rabbit itself cannot hurt the dog, but the dog can still get lost and trapped. And it's not just rabbbits -- a dog can go underground on its own chasing a fox or badger if you do not have a locator collar on it and tools to dig it out. A loose dog that is out of sight is always a danger, but the rabbit or hare itself is not the problem.

As for deer, do not worry about it; the deer can easily avoid the dog unless the deer get stuck on a fence, which is very unlikely.


Patti McCracken said...

thanks, I'll do more checking as to the type of rabbit (burrower, etc.). It seems to be jackrabbits --they just hop off away, zigzagging along, and then my dog runs back to me. But I'll ask around. Thanks for your help.

Patti McCracken said...

and one more thing... these are really large rabbits. Really large, so that's why I am assuming they are hares/jackrabbits.

Anonymous said...

We have snowshoe hares in West Virginia. It was a family tradition to take the dogs up to the High Alleghenies and run them.

I remember one time that an acquaintance went along, who had never seen a hare before, and when the dogs bolted a hare from the rhododendron, he took off running in the opposite direction. He was shocked at the size of the creature.

Daniel Gauss said...

If the blacktail jack could indeed run 30-35mph, our hounds would catch every single one, no matter how agile they are. I think you meant 40-45 ( They are the second fastest North American mammal behind the (much faster) Pronghorn "antelope" (>50mph).

Many of the dogs we hunt with (not mine, alas) can hit 40 in short bursts on the chase, but we catch only about one in ten, and those can usually be classified as "terminally stupid". If the dogs can get them turning in circles instead of lining out- they're goners.

PBurns said...

Nah -- not a typo. I am simply WRONG. I corrected it though! ;) Thanks for that. I like to get it right.


Daniel Gauss said...

In your defense, the "30-35mph" number shows up on a number of sites. Not sure where they're timing those jacks, though. Maybe California ;)
The New Mexico blacktails can flat fly!

Aoibheall said...

I wish that jacks here in California were doing as well as all that. At least where I live, North East of Sacramento. All of our fields are being developed and, as a result, jack rabbits and cotton tails are becoming scarce. We walk fields that you would thing were Loaded and come up empty handed. As a falconer, I will travel pretty far to hunt my hawk. I live with access to 1100 acres of oak and grassland. Cattle are put out there from November to June. In the 10 years I have lived here I have only flushed perhaps 5 jacks, unintentionally. My hawk got one, a beautiful big male.

Jack rabbit is very good eating, by the way. Back strap and thighs for stews, chili and slow cooking; everything but the guts go to my birds. If you live in the greater Sacramento area and have jackrabbits, let me know. YOu can come out and watch the hawks do their thing.