Rabbits and Squirrels

by Wayne Heinze

In the post-Civil War western The Outlaw Josie Wales, Clint Eastwood in the title character comments on why he doesn’t want to bury two recently dispatched bounty hunters. “Buzzards gotta eat same as worms,” followed by a stream of tobacco juice spit towards the carrion. I thought of that pronouncement this morning while sitting on my side porch and observing a red tail hawk swoop down and pluck a yearling rabbit from my yard. Dinner for the hawk, and one less rabbit to watch cavorting for my entertainment, I’d like to think, but in reality for themselves.

Rabbits and many other apparently tasty critters are born to run. And quickly at that, with the darting cuts and feints of a scat back. There are no slow, old rabbits. But in times other then in mortal flight, rabbits still like to run. As I watch my new crop of rabbits each year, I am delighted and unceasingly amazed at their games of catch the bunny, which they play until exhausted. At which time, they lie in panting repose, side by side, under the shade of the enormous hostas at the side of the porch. Random scurryings and spontaneous spurts are interesting enough individually. But when accomplished as a team, the delight in their pursuit and speed and agility, combined with the reckless abandon and uncertain outcome, is palpably delightful.

In his novel about life in a rabbit warren, Watership Down, Richard Adams penned the following concerning the punishment and fate meted out to the prideful rabbits by their god. “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

And here in my yard in New Jersey the rabbits are indeed thriving, save for the predations of the hawk, fox, and an especially athletic black blur of of a house cat with a taste for Mr. Cottontail. And this is an urban landscape, once a farmstead and now a tract of mostly ranch style homes. As it is my home, and I am an angler, it is located a short hike from four ponds, Hopkins, Driscoll, Wallworth and Evans that drain into the nearby Cooper River.

The waters of the Cooper flow west until widening into Cooper River Park Lake, then over the dam, through the Kaighn Avenue floodgates into the main stem of the Delaware River, joining the tidal flow at Philadelphia down to the Delaware Bay and the sea. Not only is this watershed beneficial to me as an angler with a ample supply of “home waters” to fish at the drop of a hat, but because of the gifts from the riparian zones and park lands established around these waters. The gifts are my urban wildlife, the aforementioned rabbit, and my other entertainer the squirrel at the forefront in my mind, because I fancy that they have come to my yard to visit me. I have to wander the cross country trail along the river to spot deer, woodchucks, muskrat or fox or heron. And the possum and raccoon are nocturnal, and usually seen fleeting moments in the headlights of the car. But, my other two wildlife forms make house calls, the rabbits and squirrels

The rabbits that cavort in my yard are Eastern Cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus), a medium size member of their clan. My description of them would be a grayish brown for the most part with some rusty coloration as they age. Rabbits are rare in concrete cities, but I am sure most people dwelling anywhere other than a megalopolis have encountered rabbits, and truth be told, that often breeds an indifference. So much so that one rarely hears rabbit stories, unless it’s the one about the newly planted garden that was chomped down in one week by the “damn rabbits.”

And chomp they will, but why not? They were here first, along with all the other wildlife. What does it say about the creatures who refused to be moved off their turf by the three centuries of intrusion and converting meadow and field into housing tracts? They were there then, and they are there now (along with the squirrels, coming up next), and will remain.

No one is going to sit and watch rabbits or squirrels play, hunt, feed, etc very often, but everyone should sometime. It is the local theatre’s production of An Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. An indigenous species adapting, flourishing, and surviving on what is still it”s own turf. The tenacity that each individual displays to live day by day as a hunted creature, rolls into a will of the species to survive. The will of a species to adapt to almost whatever we throw in it’s path, and thrive. And come to visit, at that.

And this morning I watched again as three rabbits snuffled through the growing numbers of leaves on the lawn, still finding morsels to nibble on. The smallest of the three approaches the pumpkin on the porch ledge, stopping a couple of feet short and lifting its head, sniffs vigorously. Not trusting the scent, it veers off stage right at high speed, stopping twenty meters away at the curb line. In the meantime, the other two rabbits have abandoned their feeding and are chasing around in an ever widening circle. Again, one veers off suddenly on a straight sprint, until skidding to a stop in the wood chip mulch by the hose bucket. The third rabbit sits for awhile, then quickly zigzags forward, stopping under the cedars, startling a squirrel back up the tree. The mammal motions have ceased for the time being, and I don’t notice the first two rabbits depart, but several minutes later the third heads across the street in in a choppy hop, to disappear down into the culvert behind my neighbor’s house.

If the pattern from over the past few weeks holds, they (or rabbits that look much like them) will return late in the afternoon for another visit, sometimes for an almost identical encore performance, sometimes behaving quite differently, but always delightfully. As to where they go in the middle of the day, since it is just turned October my assumption is they are still reacting to the near 80 degree temperatures during the middle of the day of this Indian Summer period. So two visits a day from the rabbits to my place of abode. I often wonder if anyone else is receiving similar visits from these or other group of rabbits, but have not done much investigating along those lines. Occasionally in the evening, I have noticed a rabbit or two on the neighbor’s property across the street, but as the numbers of rabbits I’ve counted has ranged from one to six with three being the mode, the neighbors rabbit could be “one of mine.” I don’t get a lot of visitors, so I am disinclined to share.

This evening’s performance is less hectic and more nuanced than this morning. There are four squirrels cavorting in the same area, and even though they pass quite close by each other there is no perception of deliberate avoidance by either species, unlike the startled squirrel from this morning. The rabbits seem to be executing more head movement, a sort of gentle bobbing, but I can’t link it to any feeding, and it occurs as far as I have observed, late in the day, but not every day. There is a baseball field at the end of the block (I have observed rabbits there) and the report of the aluminum bats striking the pitch will cause a startle reaction among the rabbits, displayed as a brief stiffening, and a slight inclination or lean of the head and shoulders in the direction of the sound. Then, almost at once, no immediate danger detected, they relax back into their mellow mode.

Of singular interest, is the fact that they do not react to crowd noise (it is a 14-15 year old fall ball league and practice site) or even every batted ball. Just some with a certain tone, since a couple of really loud metallic thwacks were completely ignored just a few minutes before a nondescript white noise type of ping set the alert. What is it in their tiny, ancient minds, with no knowledge of metallurgy, or the concept of knowledge of anything, would have a defense mechanism able to categorize and evaluate threat levels on an instantaneous, ongoing basis. Homeland Security should be so blessed. My humble group of hunted Hasenpfeffer brings me not only the Marx Brothers but Survivor as well. And yet so it must be, since their slot in this neo-ecosystem is one of major prey.

Yes there are mice, shrews, voles, chipmunks, etc, but the hawk, the fox, the possum, the raccoon, the crows, the larger snakes, will seek the tasty rabbit flesh when they can. Yes, when they can catch them, they will kill them, but the rabbits don’t make it easy. And yet living with a bullseye on its back, actually a tell-tale stubby cottontail to be accurate, the rabbit has evolved a playful, hectic, watchful lifestyle that continues its existence. In spite of the success of man in taking away the more vast meadows and fields of ancient times, he has provided lawns and cultivated areas, more edge space, which is key in any ecosystem. And the rabbit has adapted, evolved, continued the evolution of its own species, right here out side my screen porch. Matinee and twilight show, more reliable than curtain times off Broadway. And as the rabbit predators have managed to adapt to the new environment we’ve foisted on them as well, if not so obviously, the pressure on the rabbits will continue.

It is impossible for me not to try to put into human terms what I am seeing in the rabbits behavior. The only word I can use to describe 90% of their activity is fartlek. It sounds like something I just made up, but if you happen to be a runner, you know what I am talking about. Fartlek is a Swedish word, roughly translating to mean speed play. It is a type of alternative workout inserted by runners in training for a physical and mental break from more traditional interval, repeat, and controlled pace practices. In fartlek workouts, you run fast when you feel like it, slow the pace, vary the pace, run to feel good, not achieve a specific time or distance goal.

I have seen cross country runners in particular use rabbit-like diagonal bursts or pick-ups, just to keep things interesting I suppose. Or because it felt good at the time, just like it does to the rabbit all the time.

I often think of a verse from the song “Born To Run” when I’m watching my rabbits and squirrels. Not the iconic Bruce Springsteen anthem, but a song by the same name written by Paul Kennerly, popularized by Emmylou Harris on her Cimarron album. The verse goes:

Well I was born to run
To get ahead of the rest
And all I wanted was to be the best
Just to feel free and be someone
I was born to be fast, I was born to run

So I am comforted and frankly beguiled at times by my perception of wildlife. It doesn’t have to be lions and tigers and bears, oh my. At least not all the time. And I’ll feel happy and not a little blessed each morning or evening that I sit on the side porch watching my visitors come to play.