Gateway to the Classics: Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by John Burroughs
Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by  John Burroughs

The Rabbit and the Hare

With us the hare is of the remote northern woods, the rabbit is of the fields and bushy margins of the woods. One retreats before man and civilization, the other follows in their wake. The rabbit is now common in parts of our State (New York) where in my boyhood only the hare was found. The rabbit evidently loves to be neighbor to man and profits by it. Nearly every winter one takes up her abode under my study floor, and when the snow is deep and the weather is cold she usually finds every night a couple of sweet apples on her threshold. I suppose she thinks they grow there, or are blown there by the wind like the snow. At such times she does not leave her retreat; the apples are good fortune enough. If I neglect to put them there, in the morning I see where she has gone forth over the lawn looking for them, or for some other food.

I wonder if that fox chanced to catch a glimpse of her the other night when he stealthily leaped over the fence near by and walked along between the study and the house? How clearly one could read that it was not a little dog that had passed there! There was something furtive in the track; it shied off away from the house and around it, as if eyeing it suspiciously; and then it had the caution and deliberation of the fox,—bold, bold, but not too bold; wariness was in every footprint. If it had been a little dog that had chanced to wander that way, when he crossed my path he would have followed it up to the barn and have gone smelling around for a bone; but this sharp, cautious track held straight across all the others, keeping five or six rods from the house, up the hill, across the highway toward a neighboring farmstead, with its nose in the air, and its eye and ear alert, so to speak.

One summer a wild rabbit came up within a few feet of my neighbor's house, scooped out a little place in the turf, and reared her family there. I suppose she felt more secure from prowling cats and dogs than in the garden or vineyard. My neighbor took me out to let me into her secret. He pointed down to the ground a few feet in front of us and said, "There it is." I looked and saw nothing but the newly mown turf with one spot the size of my two hands where the grass was apparently dead. "I see no rabbit nor any signs of a rabbit," I replied. He stooped to this dry spot and lifted up a little blanket or carpet of matted dry grass and revealed one of the prettiest sights I had ever seen, and the only one of the kind I had ever looked upon!—four or five little rabbits half the size of chipmunks, cuddled down in a dry fur-lined nest. They did not move or wink, and their ears were pressed down close to their heads. My neighbor let the coverlet fall back, and they were hidden again as by magic.


gray rabbit

They had been discovered a few days before when the lawn was mown, and one, as it sprang out from the nest, was killed by the mower, who mistook it for a young rat. The rest of them fled and disappeared through the grass, but the next morning they were back in the nest, where they remained for several days longer. Only at night, so far as was observed, did the mother visit and nurse them.

There was no opening into the nest, the mat of dried grass covered it completely, so that the mother, in her visits to them, must have lifted it up and crept beneath. It was a very pretty and cunning device. One might have stepped upon it in his walk, but surely his eyes alone would never have penetrated the secret. I am told by men wise in the lore of the fields and woods that the rabbit always covers her nest and young with a little blanket, usually made of fur plucked from her own breast.

The rabbit seems to suffer very little from the deep snows and severe cold of winter. The deeper the snow, the nearer she is brought to the tops of the tender bushes and shoots. I see in my walks where she has cropped the tops of the small, bushy, soft maples, cutting them slantingly as you would with a knife, and quite as smoothly. Indeed, the mark was so like that of a knife that, notwithstanding the tracks, it was only after the closest scrutiny that I was convinced it was the sharp, chisel-like teeth of the rabbit. She leaves no chips, and apparently makes clean work of every twig she cuts off.

The hare is nocturnal in its habits, and though a very lively creature at night, with regular courses and run-ways through the wood, is entirely quiet by day. Timid as he is, he makes little effort to conceal himself, usually squatting beside a log, stump, or tree, and seeming to avoid rocks and ledges where he might be partially housed from the cold and the snow, but where also—and this consideration undoubtedly determines his choice—he would be more apt to fall a prey to his enemies. In this, as well as in many other respects, he differs from the rabbit proper. He never burrows in the ground, or takes refuge in a den or hole, when pursued. If caught in the open fields, he is much confused and easily overtaken by the dog; but in the woods, he leaves his enemy at a bound. In summer, when first disturbed, he beats the ground violently with his feet, by which means he would express to you his surprise or displeasure; it is a dumb way he has of scolding. After leaping a few yards, he pauses an instant, as if to determine the degree of danger, and then hurries away with a much lighter tread.

His feet are like great pads, and his track in the snow has little of the sharp, articulated expression of Reynard's, or of animals that climb or dig. Yet it is very pretty, like all the rest, and tells its own tale. There is nothing bold or vicious or vulpine in it, and his timid, harmless character is published at every leap. He abounds in dense woods, preferring localities filled with a small undergrowth of beech and birch, upon the bark of which he feeds. Nature is rather partial to him, and matches his extreme local habits and character with a suit that corresponds with his surroundings,—reddish gray in summer and white in winter.

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