There are three species of hares (genus Lepus) native to California: the Black-tailed, the White-tailed and the Snowshoe Hare. The Black-tailed and White-tailed hares are commonly called Jackrabbits. The Snowshoe (or Varying hare) is known as the Snowshoe Hare.
Jackrabbits and Snowshoe Hares are true hares because, unlike the Cottontail Rabbits, they do not build nests. The mother simply chooses a place to her liking and the young are born fully furred, with their eyes wide open.
Of these, only the Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) is a desert dweller, inhabiting all 4 southwestern deserts. His cousin the Antelope Jackrabbit (Lepus alleni) prefers to live in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. It is one of the largest hares in North America and weighs from 4 to 10 pounds and a few can reach 12 pounds.
The White-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) is the largest of California's hares and the second largest hare in the Western Hemisphere (the largest hare in the US and CANADA is the European Hare). It weighs from 6 to 12 pounds and a few do get slightly larger. In winter it is sometimes mistaken for the Snowshoe Hare, because, in the colder parts of its range, individuals turn completely white. The range of the White-tailed Jack in California is restricted to the east side of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges from Tulare County north to the Oregon border.
The Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus) has a range that consists of a long narrow strip from the Oregon border down through the higher elevations of the Klamath, Cascade, and Sierra Nevada ranges as far south as Tuolumne County. There are a few Snowshoe Hares in the Warner Mountains in Modoc County. The Snowshoe is seldom seen for it prefers to live in dense fir thickets and in winter is isolated by deep snow.
Unlike the Black-tailed Jack, which prefers to live in valleys and flat, open country, the White-tailed Jack lives in the hills and mountains. In their summer coat, in areas where the ranges of these two Jackrabbits overlap, there may be some confusion as to identity. However the two may be distinguished by the color of the underside of their tails. The tail of the Black-tailed Jack is brownish underneath; the tail of the White-tailed Jack is white.
The Snowshoe Hare is more easily identified as it is the smallest hare. It looks more like a cottontail rabbit. Its ears are shorter than its head, but the underside of its tail is brown, not white like the cottontail.
The Black-tailed Jackrabbit is 18 to 25 inches long and is colored buff peppered with black above, and white below. The tail has a black stripe above. The ears are long and brown with black tips.The Antelope Jack is approximately the same size, but colored gray above with the lower sides mostly white. The face, throat and ears are brownish, but there is no black tip on the ears.
The Snowshoe Hare, like the White-tailed Jack, also goes through two annual molts. In early winter it turns snow white, except for the tips of its ears, which remain black. Its feet become covered with a mat of long hair, to help it run over the soft snow, thus its name "snowshoe". In late spring it molts again to a summer coat of grayish brown.
The Snowshoe Hare and the White-tailed Jack may have more than one litter a year. There can be as many as 7 or 8 in a litter, although the average litter is from 2 to 4.
The Black-tailed Jack is by far the most common and is found all over California except in the mountainous areas at elevations above 12,000 feet. They adapt themselves readily to man's use of the land and thrive even in highly developed areas.
In the more temperate areas of the Black-tailed Jack's range, breeding may continue the year around. Usually several litters are born each year. Here again there may be as many as 8, but the average litter is from 2 to 4. The mother hides her young when she goes out to feed, and, upon returning, mother and young call to locate each other.
Hares have many natural enemies. Coyotes, bobcats, foxes, horned owls, hawks and snakes prey on both the young and adults. At higher elevations the marten and fisher also prey on the Snowshoe.
Hares are active primarily at night. During the day they lie crouched in a "form" which they have made by using the same spot in a clump of grass or weeds. With their long ears flattened against their back, they are difficult to see. Frequently on hot summer days, they can be seen resting in the shade of a small bush or even a fence post. When frightened they run with such speed that few dogs can catch them. At the start of the chase their speed is broken by high long leaps.
Hares are strict vegetarians, eating a great variety of herbs and shrubs. In farming areas the Black-tailed Jack may become a serious pest in young orchards and to other agricultural crops.
It is estimated that nearly 2 million "Jackrabbits" are taken by hunters annually in California. The flesh is excellent eating. In periods of high population, some Black-tailed Jacks, like other game and non-game species, may become diseased and carry "Tularemia" or be a host to common animal parasites. While this is of minor consequence to humans, care should be used in handling or skinning all animals, as some diseases are transmissible through open cuts or abrasions. Cooking thoroughly eliminates any danger.