Easter Bunny Origins: Rabbit History, Habitats and Habits

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/GRISHCHA GEORGIEW
Adult cottontails will eat nearly any type of vegetation found in their environment, including your crops.

“Here comes Peter Cottontail,
hoppin’ down the bunny trail, hippity hoppin’,
Easter’s on its way.”

Easter Bunny Origins: Rabbit History, Habitats and Habits

Here comes Peter Cottontail . . . yes, indeed. You
know it’s that springtime of year again when you hear
children (and children’s TV and radio programs) belting out
the old familiar ditty.

“Peter Cottontail” was written by Steve Nelson and Jack
Rollins back in 1949. In the 38 years since, the loony
little tune has become as musically evocative of the
nonsectarian aspects of the Easter season as “Here Comes
Santa Claus” is of Christmas with the Easter rabbit now
almost (but not quite) as prominent as jolly old Saint Nick
himself.

Bringin’ ev’ry girl and boy, baskets full of Easter joy, things to make your Easter bright and gay.

How in heaven’s name–have you ever wondered?–did a concept
as preposterous as an egg-laying rabbit (a male
rabbit at that) ever manage to become associated with one
of the most sacred of all Western religious observances?

Thereupon, as they say, hangs a tale. The story of Peter
Cottontail had its beginnings in the old days-the
very old days. Back then, centuries before the
birth of Christ, the forerunner of the Easter bunny was
already a celebrated figure in the springtime fertility
rites of the ancient Celts. But this prototypical Easter
bunny wasn’t a cottontail rabbit at all (they didn’t exist
in Europe in those days), no sir; he was a European hare.
Rabbit, hare–so what’s it matter, you ask? After
all, they’re both furry little critters that hop and chew
and wiggle their noses. Granted, it’s a hare-splitting
distinction, but for those of us interested in the nature
of all things natural, it remains a distinction worth
clarifying.

Both rabbits and hares belong to the order Lagomorpha
(literally, “hare-shaped”), which almost certainly had its
origins in Asia (like most everything else mammalian) but
can be traced back a good 50 million years right here in
North America. Lagomorpha is a smallish order, comprising
just two families–Ochotonidae, those vociferous
little alpine funny-bunnies known as pikas (sometimes
called conies), and Leporidae, the rabbits and hares. All
lagomorphs have cleft upper lips (giving rise to the
unfortunate expression harelip) and long,
rodentlike incisors that grow constantly to compensate for
wear. But, contrary to popular (and until 1912, scientific)
belief, lagomorphs are not rodents.

Thus, rabbits and hares belong to the same family but are
distinct genera. (In descending rank by size, the
scientific classification of living things goes like so:
order, suborder, family, genus, species, subspecies.) And
how can those of us who care to do so tell rabbits from
hares? It’s not always easy, as evidenced by the frequency
with which our language confuses the two: In addition to
the original Easter beast having been a European hare
rather than an American cottontail rabbit, the domestic
bunny commonly known as the Belgian “hare” is actually a
rabbit, and the jack “rabbit” is really a hare–just
as the snowshoe “rabbit” in fact is a snowshoe (also called
“varying”) hare.

Be all of that as it may, there are a few
recognizable distinctions: Most hares are larger than most
rabbits and have bigger ears in proportion to body size,
and most hares have black-tipped ears while most rabbits
don’t.

Additionally, rabbit kittens (yes, odd as it seems, that’s
what baby bunnies are called) are born blind, naked, and
helpless in nursery nests constructed especially for the
occasion by the expectant mother-while hare kits are born
in the open, wherever Ma happens to be at the time, and
enter the world with vision, a cozy coat of fur, andwithin
a bare few minutes of birththe ability to scamper out of
harm’s way.

To bring all of this to bear on our original question,
then, Peter Cottontail–technically speaking–should never
have been honored in song as the Easter creature because
the prototypical Easter rabbit was in fact a
hare and a cottontail technically is a
rabbit (which is born without hair while hare kits
are hairy).

Quite so.

The question properly becomes, then: How in heaven’s name
did anything as silly as a male, egg-laying hare
ever manage to become so closely associated with one of
Western religion’s most sacred observances?

Thereupon hangs the remainder of the tale already begun.

Just as Easter for Christians honors a resurrection from
death and holds a promise of eternal life, to pre-Christian
European ancients the egg and the hare were important
symbols of the springtime rebirth of nature following the
dead zone of winter. The two traditions, sharing the same
season as they did, were bound to cross paths. To wit . . .

The egg as a symbol of fertility and birthwhat could be
more appropriate?has been traced back to the beginnings of
history in a great many cultures. The hare, likewise, was a
major symbol of fertility for many ancient peoples. In the
religious mythology of the Celts, the prolific little
creature was the loyal sidekick of Eostre, the goddess of
spring. Around the time of the vernal equinox (March 21)
each year, this unlikely couple was honored with various
pagan (earth centered) ceremonies-most of which were
intended to assure success in the coming season’s
agricultural and hunting endeavors.

Thus, the Celts’ springtime celebration of life’s conquest
over death-with the hare and egg as symbols of this
triumph-significantly predated the arrival of Christianity
in Europe. Additionally-according to the English historian
The Venerable Bede (672-735), the word Easter
derives from the Celtic goddess Eostre, whose name means,
literally, “fertile.”

And so the association of an egg-bearing hare with an
important religious holiday comes clear at last (sort of ):
The springtime fertility rites of pre-Christian Celts,
centering around the hare and his lady friend Eostre,
provided these ancient folk with an important sense of
long-term securityjust as the biblical account of the
resurrection decreases angst for Christians today with a
promise of eternal life. Difference was, the Celts were
petitioning their deities for the renewal of the natural
world in the form of children and the replenishment of the
crops and creatures critical to the people’s sustenance . .
. while the Christian celebration offered (and offers) its
followers hope, not for the rebirth of nature, but
for personal immortality in a world above and
beyond the natural.

Across the European centuries, these two ideologically
divergent springtime observances came to share the same
date and name, and somehow survived in parallel, even
though one remained stringently religious while the other
gradually entered the realm of children’s folklore. When
German emigrants came to North America in the 1700s, they
brought the tradition of the Easter hare and his eggs along
with them. Eventually, through the provincial
idiosyncrasies of our language, the hare got transformed
into a rabbit, while his eggs were stuffed into a basket
for portability.

To summarize the secret life of Peter Cottontail, then, it
came to pass that out of the ancient Celtic honoring of
Eostre and her pal the hare, hopped our own Easter rabbit
with his basketful of eggs. And the Easter rabbit, in turn,
provided inspiration for “Peter Cottontail,” the giddy
little ditty that brings so much joy to the wee folk this
time of year.

You’ll wake up on Easter morning and you’ll know that
he was there, when you find those chocolate bunnies that
he’s hiding ev’rywhere.

Of course, it doesn’t take a pagan to see how the bunny
came to be regarded as one of the ancients’ most potent
fertility symbols; everyone knows that lagomorphs breed
like . . . well, like rabbits. Consider, as a particularly
pregnant example, old Peter’s clan, genus
Sylvilagus, the cottontails (including swamp
rabbits, marsh rabbits, brush rabbits, forest rabbits,
pygmy rabbitsplus eastern, western, New England, mountain,
and desert cottontails as well as four other species, for a
total of 14).

The cottontail is native to, and ubiquitous across, the
Americas, ranging from east coast to west, and from
southern Canada on the north to as far south as Argentina
and Paraguay. Of the 14 species, the eastern cottontail (S.
floridanus
) is the most plentiful, claims the
greatest range (all 48 contiguous states plus), and is the
archetypical white bummed bunny that most of us envision
when we say “cottontail.”

When you consider that virtually all North American
predators-from the tiny least weasel to the gargantuan
grizzly bear, plus myriad other hunters both winged and
human-hold the cottontail to be one of the most delectable
items on nature’s menu, the continued survival and even
prosperity of the genus is downright amazing. Sure, old
Peter is adept at both running away (at up to 20 miles per)
and hiding from those who would invite him to dinner, but
the real secret of the cottontail’s success is its prolificacy.

To get the reproductive ball rolling, nature has endowed
cottontails with a randiness rivaling even that of humans.
Second, cottontails attain sexual maturity with astonishing
rapidity (females of one species are capable of breeding
within 80 days of birth). Third, the cottontail’s short
gestation (26 to 30 days) allows for the production of from
two to six litters during the annual half-year breeding
season (roughly February through August, peaking in May).
Fourth, cottontail litter size is large, with three to six
kits common and up to eight not unusual.

Thus, a single Madam Cottontail has the potential of
producing some 50 young per year.

And, as if all of that wasn’t sufficient to guarantee their
survival, nature has equipped rabbits with some of the
animal kingdom’s finestand least
understood–conceptional shortcuts. Witness: Through
the phenomenon of induced ovulation, rabbit does
release their eggs, not on a fixed timetable, as do most
mammals, but only and always in response to the stimulus of
copulation. This assures that every time a female
cottontail mates, an egg will be in position for
fertilization. A second little-known bunny reproductive aid
is postpartum estrus, wherein female lagomorphs
are capable of conceiving immediately after giving birth,
thus achieving continuous pregnancies. (In fact, in a
remarkable phenomenon known as superfetation, the
females of some species apparently can conceive a second
litter before completing delivery of the first,
thus achieving overlapping pregnancies.)

In addition to reproducing themselves in wholesale lots,
cottontails have an impressive potential longevity for such
small mammals, with many species capable of living as long
as 10 years under benevolent circumstances. In the wild, of
course, this potential is seldom realized; the average life
span for adults is just 15 months, with around 90% of each
season’s crop of kits perishing of natural causes
(primarily, disease and inclement weather) or taken by
predators. (Human sport-hunting pressure–or the lack
thereof–seems to alter the death rate only slightly.)

It’s no wonder that mortality is so high among cottontail
kits, since they enter life pitifully ill equipped for the
many challenges and hardships of the wilds. Newborns weigh
only one to two ounces each and are blind, near-naked, and
totally helpless. But small mammals mature quickly, and
after just a week or so of guzzling their mother’s
nutritious milk, baby cottontails are furred, have opened
their eyes, and are squirming about in the nest. Another
week and the kits have tripled their birth weight and are
ready to venture out on short treks. Within a month of
birth, young cottontails are weaned and entirely on their
own.

Each spring and summer, innumerable “abandoned” cottontail
kits are discovered by well-meaning folk and taken home to
be savedwhere they almost always die within a few days. If
you should happen upon a seemingly deserted nest of
quivering bunny young, be certain–before “rescuing” the
little waifs–that they are, in fact, orphaned. Unless you
can locate a dead mother rabbit, assume that she’s hiding
somewhere nearby and will return as soon as you leave–and
don’t touch the young. If, however, you are
absolutely positive that the kits are orphaned, and wish to
take them home, you’ll have to go out of your way to assure
their survival. To begin with, the brood must be provided
with a clean, dry nest box housed indoors or at least
protected from wind, rain, and deep cold. Nurse cottontail
kits on low-fat milk enriched with egg yolks and bunny
vitamins (available from feed stores, vets, and mail-order
houses).

Adult cottontails can and do eat nearly every type of
vegetation their home turf offersincluding (depending on
season and locale) grasses, forbs, bark, leaves, nuts,
berries, seeds, and cultivated crops (even, in rare but
documented instances, insects). In a phenomenon known
variously as refection and coprophagy
(use your dictionary, or ask a rabbit rancher to explain),
most everything swallowed by a lagomorph is (to word it as
politely as possible) run through the animal’s digestive
system twice to assure maximal absorption of nutrients.
This recycling-for-effciency is especially important in
winter, since cottontails neither hibernate nor store food
for the hard months, and therefore must make the most of
any nourishment that comes their way.

It’s no accident of nature, then, that the annual
early-summer peak in rabbit population corresponds exactly
with the appearance of yummy young green goodies
everywhere–including our gardens. Consequently, in
rabbit-rich areas, Peter and his extended family can
sometimes become first-class pests.

Of course, being Earth’s ultimate predators, we human
animals have devised a number of ways to combat
crop-raiding bunnies, some of which have proven effective,
others not. The most certain way to keep hungry rabbits out
of small gardens is chicken-wire fencing. If your
veggie patch is too spacious to be economically fenced in,
you can experiment with various organic defenses–such as
bordering your crops with a ring of unappetizing marigolds,
spraying sprouting plants with a solution of hot pepper
sauce diluted in water (one tablespoon per gallon), dusting
both plants and the earth around them with finely ground
cayenne pepper, spraying crops with diluted onion juice
(liquefy several onions in a juicer, or set them to soak
for several days in a bucket of water), or placing old
shoes (the funkier the better) near where the bothersome
bunnies have been feeding. Some folks even create scent
barriers by urinating around the borders of their gardens.
(A few years back, one adventuresome entrepreneur marketed
lion poop as a mammalian-pest repellent. I hear tell the
product proved equally effective at discouraging rabbits,
deer, and gardeners.)

More direct (and, thus, more certain) robber-rabbit
remedies include fast dogs, large cats, live-trapping,
and-in rural areas, at least shotguns and well-aimed .22s.

But this time of year, before you take aim on a bunny in
your garden with the intent of transmogrifying diner into
dinner, look close to be certain your potential target
isn’t toting a basketful of odd-colored eggs. Your kids
would never forgive you.

Oh! Here comes Peter Cottontail, hoppin’ down the bunny
trail-hippity hoppity, happy Easter Day!


“PETERSON COTTONTAIL” BY STEVE NELSON AND JACK ROLLINS USED
BY PERMISSION. COPYRIGHT © 1950 BY HILL AND RANGE
SONGS, INC. COPYRIGHT RENEWED AND ASSIGNED TO CHAPPELL AND
CO., (INTERSONG MUSIC, PUBLISHER). INTERNATIONAL COPYRIGHT
SECURED. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.