Phil Hugo: A young lagomorph hangs out in our yard

By Phil Hugo - Guest Columnist

I am sitting on our front porch in the waning days of May. It is a fine post from which to surveil the world at hand.

New leaves on oak trees tussle with each other in the breeze, red-bellied woodpeckers hop about the trunks of those trees looking for insects and furry wagtails (also known as squirrels) do what squirrels do.

Plants in our gardens are getting ready to burst into bloom and bestow their beauty on the neighborhood. They will provide food for many critters — feathered, six-legged and furred.

When it comes to furry animals, one species in particular has piqued our curiosity. I’m not sure who spotted it first — me or my wife, Karen, but someone exclaimed: “Look, there’s a bunny in our front yard.”

Rabbits have nested in our front flower beds in the past, but I’ve seen no evidence this year. At any rate, Solomon, as Karen calls it, is gracing us with his presence in our front yard where there is an abundance of plant fare and safe hiding places.

I asked Karen: “Why Solomon?”

“Because he is wise to take up residence in our front yard.”

Call him or her what you will, the rabbit’s visit is providing ample opportunity to experience the quiet art of wildlife observation. And when it comes to this little … You thought I was going to say rodent, didn’t you?

The eastern cottontail rabbit belongs to an order of hare-shaped mammals known as lagomorphs that includes rabbits, hares and pikas. I’m not sure if Bugs Bunny or Peter Cottontail would fit in here, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

While members of this order and species in the order rodentia — like rats, squirrels and mice — have large incisors adapted for gnawing, rabbits and their kin have a second, smaller set of incisors behind the upper chisel-like incisors. But enough with formalities. What’s important is you know what differentiates the eastern cottontail rabbit from Rocket J. Squirrel, at least in the way of teeth.

The botanical makeup of our property consists of flower beds and the lawn, with the latter not being pure bluegrass. Rather, it is a mixture of said grass, violets, plantains and clover, to name a few. Throw in the flowers of the gardens, and you have a salad bar fit for a lagomorph.

But wait a minute! I spend my hard-earned money on gazanias, tickseed and dianthus, among others, to provide floral diversity in our yard. I don’t go to the garden center thinking: “I wonder what the rabbits would like to munch on?”

When I grouse about Solomon nibbling on the dianthus leaves and buds, Karen’s solution is: “Go get another dianthus.” Yeah right — one for the rabbit and one for Phil! It is far from being a Peter Rabbit vs. Mr. McGregor war in our garden, but whether you grow phlox or kohlrabis, you get the picture.

Our rabbit-watching begins in the morning — perhaps from a bedroom window — and ends on the front porch as dusk settles in. Solomon frequents the front yard, feeding in the morning and late afternoon, then takes a mid-day siesta under a thick clump of vegetation in the garden.

Where does the lagomorph spend the night? One evening I saw the little critter, perhaps 2 or 3 weeks old, scoot into a gap between the steps and foundation of our neighbors’ front porch. As it grows, it will need to find other hiding places to be safe from predators like cats and owls.

When it comes to survival, a rabbit’s long ears, acting like parabolic reflectors, and its nose, always in sniff-sniff mode, are important adaptations. And don’t forget those legs. Eyes on the side of its skull also give it a one-up on the predators.

Our resident lagomorph has grown accustomed to our presence because we don’t make sudden movements, and we talk to it in soft tones. One morning I was on the sidewalk, and it slowly walked toward me, stopping within an inch or two of my shoes. Maybe it stopped short because it didn’t like the smell.

One evening I saw Solomon sitting in the garden near the dianthus and tickseed that were enclosed in protective screens. I stood on the sidewalk, moving closer when he would turn his head to feed on the phlox. We maintained our positions to see who would blink first. After half an hour I blinked, and he moved, a blur in the corner of my eye as he headed for the aforementioned porch.

The next day I measured the gap between us. Six feet. I related the incident to my brother Jerry. “Sounds like you were social distancing,” he said, chuckling.

We keep watching. As the critter gets older it gets bolder, even venturing into the street. A squirrel approached and chased the rabbit back to our yard. Was it the rodent’s way of telling the lagomorph: “You better stay out of the street, or you might end up like many of us do — roadkill.”

It’s early July as I finish this, and the rabbit is still around. It was nowhere in sight for two or three days, then it appeared in the backyard.

It crossed the boulevard one morning, through a fence, into another yard. An hour or so later I saw it in our neighbor’s yard. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. Not even for a rabbit.

I don’t know how much longer the young lagomorph will be hanging out with us, but he will leave, undoubtedly as he appeared — unannounced. And Karen will ask, “Have you seen Solomon?” I suspect we will keep looking.

By Phil Hugo

Guest Columnist

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

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