Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


A Cotton-tail Rabbit

The Cotton-Tail Rabbit

Teacher's Story

"The Bunnies are a feeble folk whose weakness is their strength.

To shun a gun a Bun will run to almost any length."

—Oliver Herford

dropcap image T IS well for Molly Cotton-tail and her family that they have learned to shun more than guns for almost every predatory animal and bird makes a dinner of them on every possible occasion. But despite these enemies, moreover, with the addition of guns, men and dogs, the cotton-tail lives and flourishes in our midst. A "Molly" raised two families last year in a briar-patch back of our garden on the Cornell Campus, where dogs of many breeds abound; and after each fresh fall of snow this winter we have been able to trace our bunny neighbors in their night wanderings around the house, beneath the spruces and in the orchard. The track consists of two long splashes, paired, and between and a little behind them, two smaller ones; the rabbit uses its front feet as a boy uses a vaulting pole and lands both hind feet on each side and ahead of them; owing to the fact that the bottoms of the feet are hairy the print is not clear-cut. When the rabbit is not in a hurry it has a peculiar lope, but when frightened it makes long jumps. The cotton-tails are night wanderers and usually remain hidden during the day. In summer, they feed on clover or grass or other juicy herbs and show a fondness for sweet apples and fresh cabbage; in our garden last summer Molly was very considerate. She carefully pulled all the grass out of the garden-cress bed, leaving the salad for our enjoyment. In winter, the long, gnawing teeth of the cotton-tail are sometimes used to the damage of fruit trees and nursery stock since the rabbits are obliged to feed upon bark in order to keep alive.

The long, strong hind legs and the long ears tell the whole bunny story. Ears to hear the approach of the enemy, and legs to propel the listener by long jumps to a safe retreat. The attitude of the ears is a good indication of the bunny's state of mind; if they are set back to back and directed backward, they indicate placidity, but a placidity that is always on guard; if lifted straight up they signify attention and anxiety; if one is bent forward and the other backward the meaning is: "Now just where did that sound come from?" When running or when resting in the form, the ears are laid back along the neck. When the cotton-tail stands up on its haunches with both ears erect, it looks very tall indeed.

Not only are the ears always alert, but also the nose; the nostrils are partially covered and in order to be always sure of getting every scent they wabble constantly, the split upper lip aiding in this performance; when the rabbit is trying to get a scent it moves its head up and down in a sagacious, apprehensive manner.

The rabbit has an upper and lower pair of incisors like other rodents, but on the upper jaw there is a short incisor on each side of the large teeth; these are of no use now but are inherited from some ancestor which found them useful. There are at the back of each side of the upper jaw six grinding teeth, and five on each side of the lower jaw. The split upper lip allows the free use of the upper incisors. The incisors are not only used for taking the bark from trees, but also for cutting grass and other food. The rabbit has a funny way of taking a stem of grass or clover at the end and with much wabbling of lips, finally taking it in, meanwhile chewing it with a sidewise motion of the jaws. The rabbits' whiskers are valuable as feelers, and are always kept on the qui vive  for impressions; when two cotton-tails meet each other amicably, they rub whiskers together. The eyes are large and dark and placed on the bulge at the side of the head, so as to command the view both ways. Probably a cotton-tail winks, but I never caught one in the act.

The strong hind legs of the rabbit enable it to make prodigious jumps, of eight feet or more; this is a valuable asset to an animal that escapes its enemies by running. The front feet are short and cannot be turned inward like those of the squirrel, to hold food. There are five toes on the front feet, and four on the hind feet; the hair on the bottom of the feet is a protection, much needed by an animal which sits for long periods upon the snow. When sleeping, the front paws are folded under and the rabbit rests on the entire hind foot, with the knee bent, ready for a spring at the slightest alarm; when awake, it rests on the hind feet and front toes; and when it wishes to see if the coast is clear, it rises on its hind feet, with front paws drooping.

The cotton-tail has a color well calculated to protect it from observation; it is brownish-gray on the back and a little lighter along the sides, grayish under the chin and whitish below; the ears are edged with black, and the tail when raised shows a large, white fluff at the rear. The general color of the rabbit fits in with natural surroundings; since the cotton-tail often escapes its enemies by "freezing," this color makes the scheme work well. I once saw a marsh hare, on a stone in a brook, freezing most successfully. I could hardly believe that a living thing could seem so much like a stone; only its bright eyes revealed it to us.

The rabbit cleans itself in amusing ways. It shakes its feet, one at a time, with great vigor and rapidity to get off the dirt and then licks them clean. It washes its face with both front paws at once. It scratches its ear with the hind foot, and pushes it forward so that it can be licked; it takes hold of its fur with its front feet to pull it around within reach of the tongue.


Washing up

The cotton-tail does not dig a burrow, but sometimes occupies the deserted burrow of a woodchuck or skunk. Its nest is called a "form," which simply means a place beneath a cover of grass or briars, where the grass is beaten down or eaten out for a space large enough for the animal to sit. The mother makes a soft bed for the young, using grass and her own hair for the purpose; and she constructs a coarse felted coverlet, under which she tucks her babies with care, every time she leaves them. Young rabbits are blind at first, but when about three weeks old, are sufficiently grown to run quite rapidly. Although there may be five or six in a litter, yet there are so many enemies that only a few escape.

Fox, mink, weasel, hawk, owl and snake all relish the young cottontail if they can get it. Nothing but its runways through the briars can save it. These roads wind in and out and across, twisting and turning perplexingly; they are made by cutting off the grass stems, and are just wide enough for the rabbit's body. However, a rabbit has weapons and can fight if necessary; it leaps over its enemy, kicking it on the back fiercely with its great hind feet. Mr. Seton tells of this way of conquering the black snake, and Mr. Sharp saw a cat completely vanquished by the same method. The rabbit can also bite, and when two males are fighting, they bite each other savagely. Mr. E. W. Cleeves told me of a Belgian doe which showed her enmity to cats in a peculiar way. She would run after any cats that came in sight, butting them like a billy-goat. The cats soon learned her tricks, and would climb a tree as soon as they caught sight of her. The rabbit's sound of defiance, is thumping the ground with the strong hind foot. Some have declared that the front feet are used also for stamping; although I have heard this indignant thumping more than once, I could not see the process. The cotton-tail is a hare, while the common domestic rabbit is a true rabbit. The two differ chiefly in the habits of nesting; the hares rest and nest in forms, while the rabbit makes burrows, digging rapidly with the front feet.


Rabbit Tracks

Not the least of tributes to the rabbit's sagacity, are the negro folk-stories told by Uncle Remus, wherein Br'er Rabbit, although often in trouble, is really the most clever of all the animals. I have often thought when I have seen the tactics which rabbits have adopted to escape dogs, that we in the North have under-rated the cleverness of this timid animal. In one instance at least that came under our observation, a cotton-tail led a dog to the verge of a precipice, then doubled back to safety, while the dog went over, landing on the rocks nearly three hundred feet below.

Lesson LIII

The Cotton-Tail Rabbit

Leading thought—The cotton-tail thrives amid civilization; its color protects it from sight; its long ears give it warning of the approach of danger; and its long legs enable it to run by swift, long leaps. It feeds upon grasses, clover, vegetables and other herbs.


Belgian Hares and Dutch Rabbit

Method—This study may be begun in the winter, when the rabbit tracks can be observed and the haunts of the cotton-tail discovered. If caught in a box trap, the cotton-tail will become tame if properly fed and cared for, and may thus be studied at close range. The cage I have used for rabbits as thus caught, is made of wire screen, nailed to a frame, making a wire-covered box, two feet high and two or three feet square, with a door at one side and no bottom. It should be placed upon oil-cloth or linoleum, and thus may be moved to another carpet when the floor needs cleaning. If it is impossible to study the cotton-tail, the domestic rabbit may be used instead.


1. What sort of tracks does the cotton-tail make in the snow? Describe and sketch them. Where do you find these tracks? How do you know which way the rabbit was going? Follow the track and see if you can find where the rabbit went. When were these tracks made, by night or by day? What does the rabbit do during the day? What does it find to eat during the winter? How are its feet protected so that they do not freeze in the snow?

2. What are the two most noticeable peculiarities of the rabbit? Of what use are such large ears? How are the ears held when the rabbit is resting? When startled? When not quite certain about the direction of the noise? Explain the reasons for these attitudes. When the rabbit wishes to make an observation to see if there is danger coming, what does it do? How does it hold its ears then? How are the ears held when the animal is running?

3. Do you think the rabbit has a keen sense of smell? Describe the movements of the nostrils and explain the reason. How does it move its head to be sure of getting the scent?

4. What peculiarity is there in the upper lip? How would this be an aid to the rabbit when gnawing? Describe the teeth; how do these differ from those of the mouse or squirrel? Of what advantage are the gnawing teeth to the rabbit? How does it eat a stem of grass? Note the rabbit's whiskers. What do you think they are used for?

5. Describe the eyes. How are they placed so that the rabbit can see forward and backward? Do you think that it sleeps with its eyes open? Does it wink?

6. Why is it advantageous to the rabbit to have such long, strong, hind legs? Compare them in size with the front legs. Compare the front and hind feet. How many toes on each? How are the bottoms of the feet protected? Are the front feet ever used for holding food like the squirrel's? In what position are the legs when the rabbit is resting? When it is standing? When lifted up for observation?

7. How does the cotton-tail escape being seen? Describe its coat. Of what use is the white fluff beneath the tail? Have you ever seen a wild rabbit "freeze"? What is meant by freezing and what is the use of it?

8. In making its toilet how does the rabbit clean its face, ears, feet, and fur?

9. What do the cotton-tails feed upon during the summer? During the winter? Do they ever do much damage?

10. Describe the cotton-tail's nest. What is it called? Does it ever burrow in the ground? Does it ever use a second-hand burrow? Describe the nest made for the young by the mother. Of what is the bed composed? Of what is the coverlet made? What is the special use of the coverlet? How do the young cotton-tails look? How old are they before they are able to take care of themselves?

11. What are the cotton-tail's enemies? How does it escape them? Have you ever seen the rabbit roads in a briar patch? Do you think that a dog or fox could follow them? Do rabbits ever fight their enemies? If so, how? How do they show anger? Do they stamp with the front or the hind foot?

12. Tell how the cotton-tail differs in looks and habits from the common tame rabbit. How do the latter dig their burrows? How many breeds of tame rabbits do you know?

13. Write or tell stories on the following topics: "A Cotton-tail's Story of its Own Life Until it is a Year Old;" "The Jack-rabbit of the West;" "The Habits of the White Rabbit or Varying Hare;" "The Rabbit in Uncle Remus' Tales."

Supplementary Reading—"Raggylug" and "Little War Horse," Thompson-Seton; Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers, Burroughs; Watchers in the Woods, Sharp; American Animals, Stone & Cram; Familiar Life in Field and Forest, Mathews; Sharp Eyes, Gibson; Neighbors with Claws and Hoofs, Johonnot; True Tales of Birds and Beasts, Jordan; Uncle Remus Stories, especially The Tar Baby, which emphasizes the fact that the rabbits' runways are in the protecting briar-patch.

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