Spring has sprung, which means it's time once again for that usually shy and secretive mammal the rabbit to endure a brief, yet intense period in the spotlight. Rabbits have since ancient times been considered symbols of hope, life, and renewal, particularly during springtime when fertility levels are highest. Then along came Easter and with it a whole new level of responsibility for the rabbit.
It was actually a European hare, or brown hare, that held the impressive credentials of being the original Easter Bunny, according to a Germanic legend dating back to the 1500s. The ritual of children preparing nests and eagerly anticipating the arrival of Oster Haas (Easter hare), who delivers brightly colored eggs on Easter morning, has taken place in German-speaking countries for centuries. In the United States the cottontail rabbit has been designated as the official deliverer of Easter treats. This is easily evidenced by the lyrics in popular holiday tunes such as "Peter Cottontail," and the presence of that signature fluffy white behind in every commercial rendition of the Easter Rabbit imaginable.
How are the Easter Hare (brown hare) and the Easter Rabbit (cottontail rabbit) equipped for the daunting tasks associated with their profession? Let's take a closer look at the unique features of these members of the family Leporidae to find out.
Night Time Is the Right Time
It goes without saying that the job of the Easter Rabbit requires lots of stamina and endurance. This small mammal must accomplish the seemingly impossible task of delivering hundreds of thousands of eggs to children in a single night. Both rabbits and hares are primarily nocturnal creatures, thus able to stay alert and on-task the entire Saturday night prior. Their most productive hours are at dawn and dusk, times of heightened activity and energy for the rabbit and hare. Both species are equipped with large eyes for seeing at night, and their large ears allow them to detect territorial intrusions.
The forefeet and hindfeet of rabbits and hares have strong claws and a special type of thick hair on the lower surfaces that provides better gripping. Not only does this adaptation aid with running on uneven terrain, it may also allow for the skillful carrying and maneuvering of multiple Easter baskets with minimal slippage (and broken eggs).
With their longer hind legs, European hares have a competitive edge over cottontail rabbits, able to reach a running speed of 50 miles per hour. The agile hare has the speed and skills to outrun and outwit predators. Cottontails move at a swift, but decidedly slower pace than hares, and often rely on surface depressions and burrows to conceal themselves. So far, both the hare and rabbit have managed to elude humans on every Easter Sunday to date -- an incredible feat indeed.
Though it would completely debunk the theory that there is just one Easter Rabbit, it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to assume that egg-delivery is a task shared by a complex, vast network of hundreds, if not thousands of rabbits. There certainly are enough of them to cover all the territory. It's no secret that rabbits and hares are an exceptionally fertile and active lot, often producing dozens of offspring over the course of lifetime.
Newborn hares would most quickly be able to jump on board and help with Easter tasks. Just minutes after being born, they are fully-furred and able to run around with relative ease. Alternately, newborn rabbits are ill-suited for just about any activity; they are born blind and naked, and require much coddling by their mothers before venturing out in the world.
On the Job Satisfaction
One has to wonder what the glamour and allure in being the Easter Bunny might be. One of the draws may be unlimited quantities food. While children drool over the chocolate eggs and other sweets delivered to them on Easter Sunday, rabbits and hares are no doubt enticed by their favorite edibles -- grass and clover -- found in many backyards. Perhaps the payoff is the pleasure of seeing the smiles on children's faces when they discover the colorful Easter eggs that have been left for them. Or maybe it is the honor in upholding tradition, year after year.
Whatever the reward or rewards, we commend the Easter Rabbit and the Easter Hare for hundreds of years of excellent service and on a job well done.