What’s in our parks? This week: Rabbits, woodchucks

Two other animals that are seen in our parks are rabbits and woodchucks. We’ll start off with the rabbit. One question I get asked is, “What is the difference between a hare and a rabbit?”

The terms rabbit and hare are misused. Hares have longer ears and legs and tend to live in more open areas than rabbits. They prefer to outleap and outrun any predators. Rabbits, on the other hand, tend to run for cover when threatened.

Hares do not make nests; their young are born well developed, with full fur and open eyes. Rabbits are born pink, hairless and with eyes closed.

The Eastern Cottontail is the rabbit we have around the parks. They are grayish to brownish and sprinkled with black. The upper part of the hind feet is whitish with the upper part of the tail being grayish.

They will live just about any place they can find heavy ground cover. They are not picky eaters by any means. Not only do they eat clover, but they also feed on sugar maples, dogwood, sassafras, corn, cabbage and apples. During winter months they have been known to girdle fruit trees.

Courtship activities start in late winter and early spring; after mating the pairs split up and go their separate ways. Gestation lasts about 28 to 32 days. When the young leave the nest they are still small, about four to five inches, and are pretty much on their own. Several litters are produced each year, with the number of births ranging from three to seven.

Rabbits spend most of the day hidden away in a bed or “form.” These forms are normally in good cover so that the rabbit is sheltered from all directions except to the front. These forms may be used more than once, but a new one may be used each day. If need be rabbits can also swim from predators.

Most of their activity is early morning, late evening or at night. They are not a social animal except during the mating season.

They will eat a large amount in a short time to limit exposure time to predators. However, this food is not digested at the time. It is stored in the small intestine, where it is formed into soft green fecal pellets. After the rabbit gets to its form these pellets are defecated and then are re-eaten. This is a process called coprophagy (also known as yuk).

Let’s move on to the woodchuck. The woodchuck is the largest member of the squirrel family in the state. The fur is a grayish brown but sometimes will have a blackish or reddish tone.

Woodchucks can be found almost anywhere, from cultivated fields to railroad grades and even the dirt floor of barns. They are almost completely vegetarian, eating ferns, shrubs, grasses, shoots of young trees and apples that are ripe. They also like red clover, wheat and alfalfa.

Soon after emerging from hibernation in February and March, the woodchuck finds a mate. Three to eight per litter is the range normally born late March to late April.

They dig their burrows three to four feet deep, 15 to 50 feet long and have more than one entrance. The main entrance is the one that has a pile of dirt beside it; the others are placed in hidden spots.

They feed mostly in the morning and evening but can be found above ground almost anytime. Woodchucks tend to start hibernating around mid-October. Their call is a shrill whistle, which is why they are sometimes called “whistle pigs.” They are also good swimmers.

They will share their habitats with other species such as rabbits, opossums and raccoons.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department.