Rabbits! And thereby hangs a tale (almost)

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is the world’s smallest breed, and one of the rarest. Fully grown these little creatures weigh in at less than a pound. Some years ago, it was feared that the breed had vanished, but a few were found and rescued.

The poet Ogden Nash (1902-1971) described himself as a “worsifier”. He once wrote:

“Here is a verse about rabbits
That doesn’t mention their habits.”

Quite so. And I shall not. But my daughter, who at the last count had 47 rabbits of different sizes, colours, characters and appellations, has instructed me to write a blog about these pernickety creatures. So write I must. Daughters are, as a general rule, to be obeyed.

Rabbits are, of course, two-a-penny. But one breed has struggled to survive and it is, as my daughter would instantly acknowledge, cute – or just possibly the most adorable of cutest little bunnies that ever lived.

Pygmy-rabbitsThe Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is native to a small area of Washington State, in the western part of the USA. It is the only North American rabbit that digs burrows and lives in a sagebrush habitat. In winter in the wild, pygmy rabbits almost exclusively eat sagebrush. During the summer, they eat a more varied diet. Probably sweet onions – the State vegetable – or Dungeness Crab.

More than half the world’s rabbit population resides in North America, which may be why more than half the population of coyotes lives there too. Rabbits are also native to south-western Europe, south-east Asia, Sumatra, some islands of Japan, and parts of Africa and South America.

We are speaking of a family of small mammals that scientists divide into eight genera, including the European rabbit, the cottontail rabbit, and the Amami rabbit – an endangered species on the island of Amami Ōshima, off Japan’s southern coast. The Amami rabbit is called a living fossil because it represents an ancient Asian lineage that elsewhere has disappeared.

Rabbits form part of a “clade” – a group consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants (a single “branch” on the “tree of life”). The rabbit clade is called Glires (from the Latin for dormice) and it consists of Rodentia (e.g. mice, rats, dormice, squirrels, and guinea pigs) and Lagomorpha (e.g. rabbits, hares, and pikas – small mammals, with short limbs, rounded ears, and no external tail). The ancestor of them all was doubtless much larger, but perhaps not as large as the rabbit in the film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) – the world’s first vegetarian horror film.

Many writers have created fictional rabbits. Among the best known are the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Brer Rabbit, a trickster from Africa, popularized in the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris; Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, the Flopsy Bunnies, the Fierce Bad Rabbit, etc. in the stories of Beatrix Potter; Rabbit in A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories; and Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, etc. in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

As might be expected, Edward Lear included the rabbit in his Book of Nonsense (1846). Oh my ears and whiskers! It mentions eating rabbits. Time to go, I think.Lear-Habits-Rabbits - Copy


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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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