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When the deer tags are used up, rabbits await

January 7, 2011 by Bob Gwizdz

It used to be that Midwestern hunters cut their teeth on rabbits. Once described as "the big game of small boys," rabbits offered youngsters an excellent opportunity for beginning hunters. Almost ubiquitous, they're perfect for neophytes: They can be taken, easily enough, with a small-bore shotgun or a .22, and if a hunter misses, well, there's usually another rabbit as near as the next brush pile.

Dwayne Etter uses a .410 handgun to hunt rabbits.That's not so much the case anymore.

Now, with deer herds having expanded across the Midwest -- and Americans having gone officially whitetail crazy -- more youngsters are starting out as deer hunters and rabbit hunting has been relegated to a small coteries of houndsmen, many of whom get as much enjoyment out of just running the critter -- and listening to the beagle music -- as they do actually reducing them to possession.

Think not? Well the records in my home state of Michigan, where there are pretty good populations of two different rabbits -- cottontails and snowshoe hares -- tell the story.

Brian Frawley, the biologist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources who conducts mail surveys for the wildlife division, says the number of cottontail hunters has dropped by about 80 percent during the last five decades. Survey data from 1954 - the earliest dependable data he has, he said - indicated that there were 388,000 folks who hunted cottontails and about 75,000 who said they pursued hares. The 2007 mail survey indicated that we now have around 83,000 cottontail hunters and about 16,600 hare hunters.

Harvests have dropped just as dramatically. In 1954, Michigan hunters said they killed around 1.5 million cottontails and 300,000 hares. In 2007, those numbers had dropped to 366,000 cottontails and 42,000 hares. Michigan hunters now kill more deer than they do rabbits in a typical year.

Still, there are some hunters who are just as happy with the way things were half a century ago. Dwayne Etter, a research biologist with the Michigan DNR, is a good example. When he was in graduate school, Etter studied white-tailed deer, especially controlling deer numbers in urban settings. As a professional, Etter works on issues related to bears and furbearers. But give him a day off in late fall or winter and Etter gets out his beagles and gets after the cottontails.

"I grew up rabbit hunting," Etter said. "It's kind of in my blood. I still go back East with my cousin, the guy I did most of my hunting with, who is still doing it. As a family, we've always had beagles."

Because he lives in southern Michigan, Ettter usually hunts cottontails, which are plentiful, though he does make an occasional trek northward to get in the hare hunting. Cottontails, though found statewide, are most populous is southern Michigan. Prolific breeders, they are capable of producing up to four litters a year with an average of more than five bunnies per litter. Although they live in a wide variety of habitats, cottontails are most commonly associated with the brushy cover in hedgerows around agricultural fields and grasslands, and early successional forests.

Snowshoe hares -- also known as varying hares as their coloration changes from brown to white as the snow falls -- are nicknamed for their large feet which allow them to make their way across the countryside in deep snow. They're found in the northern forests of the Midwest up into Canada.

Somewhat larger on average than cottontails, they are also prolific creatures. Hares are generally found in and around conifer swamps (think cedar or spruce) and in adjoining early young-age wood lots such as aspen or tag alder.

Cottontails and hares are at the bottom of the food chain, common prey for a wide range of mammalian and avian predators. Both utilize heavy cover to avoid their enemies. The key to hunting them is getting them out in the open. Typically, when beagles roust a rabbit, they lead it on a chase with the rabbit returning to the area from which it was jumped.

When looking for cottontail cover, think thick -- honeysuckle, blackberries, multiflora rose, autumn olive and prickly ash. Brush piles are good. Even the downed treetops in a cut-over woods can be productive.

Snowshoe hares act differently than cottontails, Etter said.

"It's such a step up with snowshoes in terms of how big those animals run," Etter said.  "A cottontail makes a loop of a couple hundred yards and comes back. A snowshoe makes a loop of a half mile before it comes back. When you're hunting hares, you're in big woods. It's just more physical, more challenging.

"The cover you find hares in is a little less predictable than what you find cottontails in. Sometimes you find hare tracks in the most unpredictable places. Mostly you find them in the thicker cedar swamps, but you'll find them in more open areas, too, like 20-year old aspen stands, maybe because they roam so much more."

Many veteran rabbit hunters will tell you that the perfect day for rabbit hunting is when you have a fresh blanket of snow -- which leaves fresh tracks -- and is in the 20s, so it's warm enough for good scenting conditions for the hounds. Etter isn't convinced.

"I keep pretty detailed records of the weather conditions when I'm running my dogs and it doesn"t seem to make a lot of difference," Etter said.

You don't need hounds, of course, to hunt rabbits. When I was a lad, busting the brush piles was my job while my father carried the scatter gun. We always seemed to get our share.

And the best part? Rabbit seasons are usually long and the bag limits are liberal. Hunters can continue hunting rabbits long after deer season has ended or their tags have been used up.

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