"Nature's oddities are more than good stories, " Stephen Jay Gould writes in his delightful book, The Panda's Thumb. "They are material for probing the limits of interesting theories about life's history and meaning," he goes on to say.
In the aftermath of a chance meeting with two jumping rabbits, I couldn't agree more.
The thing that muddled my mind, however, was whether to believe my own eyes at what I was seeing. Not to speak of trying to extract any meaninq from the event.
Here's what happened.
My front row seat was in my car which I had stopped in order to search for a yellow-breasted chat whose ludicrous whistles, squawks, and harsh chattering notes were coming from a brushy spot beside the road. Before I could get out of the car, I spotted the two rabbits.
Perhaps I had arrived just as the action started. I don't know.
The scene was like a set out of Alice in Wonderland. A shaft of sunshine slanted down like a spotlight through a line of cottonwood trees in the background and, not far away, Clear Creek provided a tinkling musical accompaniment to what I was about to behold.
The two rabbits appeared to be full grown adults, which means they weighed in at about three-and-a-half pounds each, and since I assume the two sexes are similar in appearance, I could not tell which was the male and which the female. They were about eight feet apart, sitting on their haunches facing each other on a little plot of grass off the berm of the road.
Without warning, one rabbit rushed the other, taking off from a dead start like a souped-up jalopy at a stock car race. The other rabbit, displaying remarkably steady nerves, stood pat until the last second, then popped two or three feet straight up in the air, exactly like a piece of toast being ejected out of a toaster.
The first rabbit sped directly under the rabbit that was in the air, then literally stopped on a dime about four or five feet beyond. The jumping rabbit came plopping down in exactly the same spot which it had first occupied. Before you could say, "Peter Rabbit, " they were both squared off and facing each other again.
After about twenty seconds, the identical actions were repeated and continued five or six more times at the same intervals before the participants became aware of my presence and scampered away. Needless to say, I was dumbstruck. I had never before seen rabbits behave in this way.
What was it all about? Was this an example of being mad as a March Hare? I asked myself again: which was the male rabbit, which the female? Or were they both males participating in a test of metal to resolve a territorial dispure?
Whatever the answers were, I wasn't prepared. My mind was boggled. My own reference books at home revealed no information and a trip to the local library was equally fruitless. I knew I would have to take my questions to an authority on the subject. Then I remembered that my son, James had a book on mammals titled "A Guide to the Mammals of Ohio," by Jack L. Gottschang. A few days later I was able to get my hands on his copy. Now I was hot on the trail.
Here's what Gottschang said: "A male and a female cottontail face each other on the ground; the male approaches the female and leaps straight up into the air, turning completely around (180 degrees) as he does so. While the male is "airborne," the female runs beneath him and immediately turns around so that when the male lands on the ground, the rabbits are again facing each other. These acrobatics are repeated over and over again, with the sexes alternating their roles; one time the male jumps into the air, the next time the female."
Gottschang went on to say that when both parties have been sufficiently stimulated, mating occurs. Perhaps that's why my rabbits had scurried away in such a hurry. They were probably looking for some privacy, and I can't say that I blamed them. It is very true that most birds prefer not to be observed when engaging in this most private of all social acts.
This was a close desciption but not exactly what I had seen. I was reasonably certain that one rabbit had been doing all the running, the other all the jumping. As I mentioned, it seemed to me that the one rabbit jumped when the other came at it. It's my guess that the running rabbit had been the male, which would prove the old adage that it's not sex that kills the male, it's the running after it, but what do I know?
I also discovered that the specific name of the cottontail is copropphagous, which refers to that nasty habit they have of eating the soft pellets which they defecate. It is thought that reingestion of this used material might provide needed vitamins or possibly aid in the digestive process. One thing is sure. It makes them jumpy.
It has been estimated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources that six to eight million rabbits inhabit Ohio, which, if true, is almost one rabbit for every person who lives in the state, which is hard to believe.
Fortunately for us, if not the rabbits, many of them have a short lease on life: About two million are killed each year by hunters and undoubtedly many more are taken by natural predators, which include weasels, foxes, feral cats and dogs, large snakes, and many species of hawks and owls. How many are killed by automobiles is not known, but it must be avery large number.
All of this is a lot of carnage in anyone's book and if these fluffy-tailed little mammals weren't so prolific they would surely be in big trouble. To offset these debilitating inroads into its population, Ohio cottontails have between three and five litters a year. After one month periods of gestation, each litter averages five to six young, which are born naked, blind, and helpless. Their eyes will open between the fifth and eighth day and it will be about twenty more days before they leave their nest. They will stiill be dependent on their mother's milk for another three weeks. After that, they are on their own.
Cottontails like old fields, brushy situations, tall grass, brambles, and the edges of woods. Their range can extend from an area as large as twenty-five acres to as little as two or three acres. Young males can become sexually active somewhere between three and six months; females usually don't breed until the beginning of their second year. From casual observation, I would guess that along the Clear Creek road in Hocking County there are about one or two pairs every mile where there is suitable habitat. I first start noticing young rabbits about the first of May .
I have already suggested that the habit (art?) of fecundity is essential to the survival of the cottontail as a species. But aside from reproductive prowess, they are blessed with a number of survival attributes that certainly assist them in their day-to-day struggle to stay alive. For one thing, the eyes are set on the sides of the head so that they have a fairly good field of vision behind them. For another, they have excellent hearing, as might be guessed by their big ears, and third, they have a keen sense of smell as is evidenced by their constantly twitching noses. In addition to all this, their powerful hind legs, which are longer than the forelegs, can send them bounding away from would-be predators on the double-quick. But in spite of all these innate talents, the cottontail is no match for the powerful talons of a great horned owl rushing down from the night sky or, for that matter, the sharp talons and hooked beak of a Cooper's hawk in the daytime As for dodging the discharge of a shotgun blast, the numbers speak for themselves.
So countless generations of rabbits have lived out their lives, reproduced, and met their demise during my lifetime without much thought on my part. That is, until my encounter that morning with the two jumping rabbits. Since then, these bumptious lop-eared characters have come hopping into my life with renewed vitality - coprophagy or not. As Stephen Jay Gould says, there's a lot to learn out there about life's history and meaning. If I ever doubted his statement, I accept it now with s hop-skip-and-a-jump.