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Flight Lines: Speed and camouflage, hallmarks of the jack

Due to shortening days, whitetail jackrabbits are undergoing a dramatic change in appearance which will turn the animals' coats a snowy white. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

"These 'silverbacks' are the largest jackrabbits in the country," Carson said as we headed west out of Tucson and into mesquite desert habitat. He had carefully loaded his two Harris's hawks into the topped bed of his pickup while his labrador rode in front. Several miles later brought us to a suitable spot where we would spend the next couple of hours walking among the prickly desert scrub and witnessing the excitement of his southwestern hawks working their cooperative skills on the antelope jackrabbit. Yes, the jacks were huge, some over 10 pounds.

On the Great Plains, however, no lagomorph (rabbit or hare) is larger than the one we see here, the whitetail jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii), which averages in the seven-pound range and is actually a hare, not a rabbit. The only other hare in North Dakota is the snowshoe hare, found along our state's northern fringe and restricted to forests. It's about the same size as our Eastern cottontail rabbit.

Whitetails go largely unnoticed to the casual urban dweller due mostly to its nocturnal habits, at least the live ones do. Road-killed specimens, though, are quite common, particularly on the edges of town and into the country.

These open habitat critters are well adapted to life on the prairie. Blessed with speed, robust insulation in the form of heavy fur, enviable eyesight, and the ability to eat almost any plant material, these hares are a true prairie survivor.

A friend recently told me of clocking a whitetail jack at 55 miles per hour while on a snowmobile. I couldn't back that up in any source; 40 M.P.H. seems to be the accepted maximum, still quite remarkable. In addition, the animals' leaps are legend with reports approaching 20 feet. No wonder then, the whitetail jackrabbit has a reputation for elusiveness.

Fox, coyotes, bobcats, golden eagles, and large hawks are among the predators known to take a jack. Large owls can be included on the list too. A relative tells the story of watching a snowy owl lift off the ground with a jack in its talons. Not an insignificant feat for a bird weighing about the same as its intended meal.

Last week I was driving near West Fargo's Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center and noticed some odd lumps in a harvested soybean field. Odder still was the fact the lumps began to move when I stopped to look. They were three whitetail jackrabbits. In time more became apparent, until 26 animals were up and about. Their amazing ability to flatten themselves into the landscape and nearly "disappear" is an obvious survival skill.

Resident North Dakotans need no license to hunt jacks (or any other rabbit) and the season is open year-round. Unlike the moist white meat of cottontails, I'm told jacks have tough dark meat nearly approaching venison, requiring a different cooking approach.

I'm not all that familiar with whitetail jackrabbit population cycles and from the studies I found, it seems there is much yet to know. Around here, at least anecdotally, it seems some years are much more productive for the animals than others. I would suspect the usual determinants are involved: weather at birthing, predator populations, disease cycles, habitat loss or gain, etc. (One thing I found kind of interesting was a name which kept popping up associated with jackrabbit scientific work - Joseph Chapman. That's right; the former president of NDSU did his graduate work on lagomorphs).

The animals I saw the other day were in an obvious transition, with parts turning white on a still mostly brown gray coat. In the next few weeks the jacks will be entirely white except for black ear tips. The external stimulus which drives this chemical change is not colder temperatures, but rather shortening day length. (Rabbits, on the other hand, do not change color).

We've got several months of winter until we see them back in their drab earth tone colors. Until then, not all white clumps in the distant landscape will be snow. The ones which get up and run will be whitetail jackrabbits.