If we receive a fresh coating of snow overnight, look for cottontail rabbit tracks in the morning light. The cottontails seem to be the first animals out and about. They are active from early evening through the night, so it's not surprising to see even city surroundings tracked-up at sunrise.
The tracks of a rabbit are unlike those of any other animal. Rabbits don't walk. Their gait is a series of hops or leaps about one to 10 feet at a time. Their smaller front feet hit the ground first. As a cottontail bounds, its larger hind feet track ahead of its front feet. The rabbit's speed is similar to that of a dog or a fox for about a quarter mile. They usually escape by dodging abruptly and doubling back to a home base where they are familiar with every cluster of shrubs or brush that offers protection. Each cottontail has its own home territory, usually fewer than 5 acres.
The eastern cottontail is native to most of the central and eastern United States. It's also in Mexico. A cottontail prefers partly wooded areas, and does well in residential areas where there is adequate cover. It's not unusual in Minneapolis, or even Washington, D.C., to see its tracks in the snow crossing lawns and parks.
A cottontail is mostly gray and brown, with a conspicuous white tail. Several hours a day are spent hunched motionless in sitting places, or "forms," located in heavy grass, a hole in the ground, or the shelter of a brush pile. Shortly after sundown, the cottontail goes forth to forage.
Jim Gilbert's Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.