So What’s With All The Brown Rabbits Around Town?

I’ve often wondered why the rabbit that lives under my deck doesn’t turn white in the winter when the “rabbits” I encounter while tromping through the woods in northern Minnesota are pure white by December.

That’s the case even during years when there’s little to no snow on the ground.

So, at the risk of asking a dumb question, I posed the question to Grand Forks mammal expert Bob Seabloom, a Professor Emeritus in the UND biology department.

Eastern cottontail rabbits, the species that roams the backyards and alleyes of Grand Forks, don't molt and turn white in the winter. Snowshoe hares and jackrabbits, by comparison, turn white early in the winter even in years with no snow on the ground. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

The reason, Seabloom said, is because the rabbit that lives under my deck is an eastern cottontail, a true rabbit species that does not change color.

“The true hares are in a different genus, and include our white-tailed jack rabbit of the plains and the snowshoe hare of forested areas,” Seabloom said. “They go through a fall molt and turn white for the winter.”

So, the “brush rabbits” I’ve encountered in the North Woods actually are snowshoe hares and not rabbits at all.

Snowshoe hares and jackrabbits are especially susceptible to predators during winters with no snow on the ground because they still turn white, which makes it difficult to hide against their brown surroundings.

It’s a photoperiod thing, Seabloom said, and unfortunately — for hares and jackrabbits, at least — snowfall and photoperiod don’t always agree with each other.

That also could explain while the brown rabbit in my backyard spends so much time under the deck once the snow flies. From what I’ve seen, though, the lack of winter camouflage hasn’t affected their numbers; there are a lot of rabbits around town.