Current Nature: Year Of The Rabbit

Seth Engelbourg •

2 Cottontail Rabbit copyrightfreestockphoto

Happy Lunar New Year Nantucket! Yesterday, January 22nd, 2023 marked the first day of the new lunar year, the Year of the Rabbit. The celebration of the Lunar New Year is culturally important for many countries throughout Asia, particularly in China. Although, we use a solar calendar in the United States, the Wampanoag inhabitants of Nantucket relied on the moon cycles as an indicator for their daily lives, including when to plant, fish, hunt, harvest, and preserve. Still to this day, the moon cycle continues to be present in our island life on Nantucket by fluctuating the tides and being one factor of sea level rise.

In 2023, there will be 13 full moons with a Blue Moon occurring on August 30th. Many locals and visitors alike have experienced the joy of waking up to see a Nantucket sunrise, but did you know that you can also view the moonrise? It can be trickier with timing, as the best time to watch moonrises is after sunset, when it is already dark. The April 6th Pink Moon appears to be the next promising opportunity to view the full moonrise, with a sunset time at 7:09 p.m. and a moonrise time at 7:54 p.m. Hopefully, it will be a clear, calm night so that the sky is not obstructed for an optimal viewing experience.

5 July 2022 Moonrise

With each new moon and lunar year comes change. The Chinese Zodiac is a repeating cycle of 12 animal signs based off the lunar calendar. 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit. Although, not all of the animals represented can be found on island, we definitely have no shortage of rabbits. They can be found almost anywhere, including on lawns, bike paths, and grasslands. These herbivores do particularly well here because we lack the presence of their mammal predators such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and weasels, that would typically be found off-island. They do still have to look out for avian predators though, and are known to be a favorite meal for red-tailed hawks.

The lesser-known and more interesting story about Nantucket’s rabbits is that the island is home to a remnant population of New England cottontails (Sylvilagus transitionalis), which has been documented by scientists at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. New England cottontails are the only native cottontail rabbit in the northeastern United States. Unfortunately, they are endangered or extinct throughout much of their native range due to competition with the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), which was introduced throughout Massachusetts in the 1800’s to provide additional game opportunities for hunters. Snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) and Black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) were also introduced to the island but their numbers have drastically reduced over time and they may possibly be extirpated. Although, the two species of cottontail look similar, New England cottontails rely on young forest and dense shrublands whereas the Eastern cottontail is adapted to a wider variety of habitats, including grasslands.

Due to Nantucket’s open, grassy environment, the Eastern cottontail has thrived and outcompeted the New England cottontail and is now the island’s predominant rabbit. Differentiating cottontails can be difficult in the field; however, there are slight differences in the ear, eye, and facial structure between the two species. The most reliable way to identify the species is via DNA testing or skull suture analysis. Since both cottontails look similar by field identification, the next time you see a rabbit in a large shrubby area like the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Ram Pasture, there is a chance it is a New England cottontail. Before you head out in search of these elusive bunnies though, take note that rabbit hunting season is currently open throughout the state and will end on February 23rd, so please take appropriate safety precautions for yourself and your pets.

Who knows what the Year of the Rabbit will bring, but I hope it is a good one. Rabbits are associated with good luck in many cultures, including the tradition of saying “Rabbit, Rabbit” on the first day of each month before you utter any other words to usher in 30 days of good luck. That may be just a superstition, but give it a try, think about the unique story of Nantucket’s New England cottontails the next time you see a bunny, and make sure to spend the Year of the Rabbit doing activities that you enjoy in nature.

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

3 Cottontail Rabbit Track in Snow a
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