Sometimes, we find out that many words, even names, we thought were just synonyms or euphemisms actually turn out to entail quite a bit of difference…
Such is the case when you’re talking about bunnies, rabbits and hares. You’ll run into lots of people in North America that use the terms interchangeably, or at the very least, they’ll use rabbit and hare to refer to a member of either genus.
But in reality, rabbits and hares are actually quite different in many fascinating ways, though most folks who don’t know better couldn’t tell them apart at a glance.
And don’t even get me started on bunnies; Let’s just say for now we’ve all been using that wrong!
If you’ve got a thing for lagomorphs, you’ve come to the right place because today I’m going to teach you all about the real differences between bunnies and rabbits and hares.
Differences at a Glance
|Size||Smaller (15-20 in)||Larger (18-28 in)|
|Body Shape||Slender, more compact||Slender, more elongated|
|Ears||Shorter and rounded||Longer and pointed|
|Behavior||Less active, prefer burrows||More active, prefer open spaces|
|Running Speed||Slower runners||Faster runners|
|Reproductive Strategy||Altricial young (born blind and hairless)||Precocial young (born with fur and open eyes)|
|Social Structure||More sociable||Less sociable, and often solitary|
|Habitat||Prefer fields and meadows||Prefer open landscapes with minimal vegetation|
|Fur Color||Generally brown or gray||Often more varied colors, including white in winter|
Isn’t a Rabbit just a Domesticated Hare?
No. This is a popular misconception, but a wild rabbit is exactly that: a wild rabbit. A wild rabbit is not called a hare, and a domesticated rabbit is it likewise called precisely that, just a domesticated rabbit.
How are Rabbits and Hares Different Exactly?
To the uninitiated, rabbits and hares seem basically identical, but there are actually considerable differences between the two. But to get there, it’s worth looking at how they’re similar.
Rabbits and hares are both mammals, and both members of the order lagomorpha and the family leporidae (partly so, in the case of rabbits).
The specific divergence is in the genus, with hares inhabiting solely the genus lepus, where is rabbits are members of many different genesis, among them pentalagus, bunolagus, romerolagus and several others.
So, strictly speaking, they are distinct species even though they have so much in common morphologically and behaviorally.
That said, as mentioned, there are considerable differences in their physical characteristics, survival methods, reproduction, and more.
Essential Characteristics of Rabbits
Compared to hares, rabbits are generally smaller and slower. Rabbits are easily distinguished from most hares because they have significantly smaller, shorter ears and also smaller feet.
Also notable is that, like hares, rabbits do undergo a seasonal molt to replace fur in the spring and in the fall.
A wild rabbit will typically shed its brown and tan summer fur for lighter shades of off-white, cream and gray in the wintertime.
Rabbits, unlike hares, have also successfully been domesticated throughout history, a practice that continues today.
With few exceptions, rabbits also live predominantly underground in lengthy subterranean chambers called warrens or burrows and typically give birth to their young underground, with babies rarely gestating for more than a month.
Baby rabbits are born pink, bald with no fur and with closed eyes. Also noteworthy, and a major difference between them and hares, is that rabbits are highly social and live together in large groups numbering 20 or more individuals.
These groups have a hierarchy, and males will fight for dominance and access to females.
Rabbits are herbivores, and usually browse on soft, green vegetation found throughout their environment, including grasses, leaves, shoots, young roots and various fruits and vegetables.
And although rabbits are popularly renowned for their speed and will run to escape predators, their preferred defensive measure is to hide from predators, remaining completely motionless in an effort to escape detection.
Essential Characteristics of Hares
Compared to a rabbit, hares are basically the opposites concerning all the traits we detailed above.
They tend to be significantly larger than rabbits overall, far more athletic with longer ears, longer legs and larger feet.
This gives them significantly greater speed and endurance compared to rabbits.
Like rabbits, hares will also undergo a molt in the spring and in the fall, usually shedding their brown and tan fur which has conspicuous black markings for light or even bright white fur in the winter time, depending on the range they typically inhabit.
Hares differ from rabbits in that they live predominantly above ground, resting and nesting in shallow, bowl-shaped depressions that they will line with soft materials like grasses and sometimes camouflage from predators.
Just like their rabbit cousins, hares are also prolific breeders, often giving birth to eight or more young at one time.
But one notable and immediately noticeable distinction is that hare babies are born precocious, fully formed with a complete coat of fur and with their eyes open, and they are ready to leave the nest much quicker compared to baby rabbits even though it usually takes them an extra week or so to gestate.
Socially, though, hares are loners; coming together only to breed, although sometimes males will fight each other over territory and access to females, and occasionally a female will fight off a male that she deems unsuitable.
They do not live in large families or related units like rabbits do.
Also just like rabbits, hares are also vegetarians, but unlike rabbits they eat much denser, harder vegetation, predominantly subsisting on roots, twigs, budding plants, bark and similarly tough stuff though they will eat greenery when given a chance.
On defense, hares depend on their incredible speed and agility to escape predators, rarely choosing to hide when confronted or threatened.
Hares and Rabbits Still Have Many Similarities
If we take the time to compare the two lists of characteristics above, we see that rabbits and hares are still quite similar.
Physiologically, the differences are mostly in terms of proportion, reproduction, diet and survival strategies. They both give birth to large litters of young, they are both strict herbivores.
Both are important to prey species in their respective environments, and both are fur bearing animals that molt in the spring and fall.
But despite these similarities, and being easy to confuse at first glance, they are different species indeed and different enough to warrant this different classification.
Can Hares and Rabbits be Harvested for the Same Purposes?
Yes. All over the world, both hares and rabbits have been hunted or, in the case of rabbits, raised for the products they can produce.
Rabbit and hare meat is an important part of many cuisines around the world, and has always been a staple of wild game during expeditions and long journeys.
Similarly, rabbit and hare fur are both prized for their softness and excellent insulation qualities, and also for the wide range of colors that they come in.
But, of the two, only rabbits can be said to be genuine livestock animals, a practice that has been continued since ancient antiquity to this very day.
What is a Male Hare Called?
A male hare is called a jack. This is where we drive the term jackrabbit from, although it is something of an oxymoron because jacks aren’t rabbits and male rabbits aren’t called jacks.
But “jackhare” does not quite roll off the tongue in the same way, now does it?
What is a Female Hare Called?
A female hare is called a jill. But knowing this, does that put a different spin on the old nursery rhyme Jack and Jill?
I suppose it doesn’t, because hares cannot fetch a pail of water from the top of a hill, obviously!
What is a Baby Hare Called?
Baby hares have a unique name, being called a leveret, or leverets, plural.
What is a Group of Hares Called?
A group of hares is referred to as a drove, husk, or down. Even though hares aren’t social like rabbits are, even a pair of mated rabbits with their young, or a mother with young, would qualify to be called any of the above terms.
What’s a Group of Rabbits Called?
A group of rabbits is it properly referred to as a colony or nest, and sometimes even referred to as a warren, although any of these terms is easily confused with the physical structure or burrow where a congregation of rabbits will live underground.
Because of this, a group of rabbits is commonly, if somewhat informally, referred to as a herd in order to provide distinction.
What is a Male Rabbit Called?
A male rabbit is called a buck, just like a deer. Considering the similarity between “buck” and “Jack” I wonder if we didn’t call jackrabbits buckrabbits back in the day and got things mixed up.
What is a Female Rabbit Called?
A female rabbit is called a doe, again just like deer.
What is a Baby Rabbit Called?
A baby rabbit is called a… kitten!
Yes, you read that right. A baby rabbit is officially called a kitten, sometimes shortened to kit or kitty.
I know I’m about to get lit up in the comments but I promise this isn’t trolling: that is the official, common terminology for a baby rabbit, not bunny.
I’ll explain in the next section.
So What is a Bunny, Then?
Bunny is a term that we use prolifically today to refer to baby rabbits, or as a pet term for any domesticated rabbit.
However, it is not an officially recognized or propagated term when referring to adult or young rabbits.
In fact, it is almost unheard of to see the term “kitten” or “kit” used when referring to baby rabbits outside of expert circles.
What does the term bunny mean and where did it come from? Really, it doesn’t have a true meaning.
Best I can tell, it used to be a polite slang term that referred to any attractive young lady, and was for a time used in basketball to refer to an easy shot at the basket.
It’s actually something of a mystery, because it is hard to pin down when the term first surfaced and became so ubiquitous for referring to baby rabbits.
You can go ahead and use the term, because people are probably going to look at you funny if you use the official name for their young, though!
Rabbits are Commonly Domesticated
One of the major and most practical considerations considering the differences between hares and rabbits is that rabbits have been and continue to be domesticated.
Hares, apparently, have never been domesticated and are extraordinarily ill-suited for it.
Whereas rabbits can learn to be calm, friendly and even affectionate with people, capable of being easily handled and interacted with, hares are just the opposite.
Hares are extremely skittish, and prone to bolt at the first sign of trouble. In fact, hares are so averse to incarceration that they routinely injure or even kill themselves when in captivity.
Even though they have served as an important fur-bearing species for hunters and trappers, and also as a source of wild game for people in the wilderness, they are entirely ill-suited to institutionalized farming for this reason.
Wild rabbits also serve the same purposes as fur animals, and are both hunted and farmed for their meat and fur alike.
But, their relatively easy domestication means that rabbit farming is an entirely viable practice, and one that has been instituted around the world wherever rabbits are found.
Are there Any Specially Domesticated Hare Breeds?
No. To the best of my knowledge, hares have never been domesticated. But because they reproduce so quickly, attempts to keep them as wild game on preserves or open ranges have proved modestly successful owing to their explosive breeding rate.
However, tracking them down for harvesting is a legitimately difficult and time-consuming enterprise considering their evasiveness if one has a commercial eye toward them.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t stop people from trying and there is some archaeological evidence gathered from various places in the world showing positively identified hare bones being buried alongside human beings, sometimes in quantity.
Whether this is an indication of hunting prowess, or serving some ceremonial purpose as opposed to being the remains of kept or owned animals, is unclear.
Are Rabbits Good Pets?
Yes. Captive bred domestic rabbits can be affectionate, playful, and very tame although they have unique needs compared to dogs and cats.
Assuming you’re willing to put in the time and effort, a domestic rabbit can make a fine pet. But as mentioned above, don’t ever try to do the same thing with a hare!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.