Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Here in the Heartland, the cottontail rabbit is one of our most important links in the natural food chain. Prolific to a fault, cottontails are the bane of summer gardeners, preferred menu items for foxes, and time honored fair game for young human hunters packing a pocket full of ammo.
Although cottontail rabbits were once a mainstay of Iowa small game hunting, their popularity has waned as more charismatic species such as Canada geese, wild turkeys, and white-tailed deer have currently stolen the spotlight. For me, cottontails have always been an exciting quarry. I love the brushy habitats they frequent, enjoy the pursuit, and especially cherish the nutritious meal a successful hunt provides. Although most ‘real sportsmen’ ignore them these days, I still enjoy hunting rabbits. During the final weeks of the season, I do so on a near daily basis.
By the time we get to the end of the season, the lowly cottontail will have earned trophy status – at least in my view. The dumb, lame, and lazy ones are long gone. Any rabbits still leaving tracks on the landscape are highly educated, street smart survivors; strictly cream of the crop. Once their hiding spots have been detected, dislodged cottontails know exactly where they need to go and will generally make all the right moves while getting there.
Most of my rabbit hunts are conducted in the company of trained northern goshawks. My role is to beat and stomp the brush while the ‘gos vigorously pursues any game I put to rout. My oldest bird is a high spirited, lightning fast eight season veteran that has chased everything from snowshoe hare to wild turkey, and just about everything in between. Confident and aggressive, you don’t want this bird on your tail. Once he manages to get a foot on fur or feather, that animal is destined for the oven.
My second hawk is a big young-of-the-year female that was trapped in late October just this side of the Ontario border. And although she is also an extremely capable hunter, she is still somewhat undecided as to whether she wants to retain my services as a full time hunting partner. She’s given me a couple of pretty good scares and at this point, I’m just happy to get her back at the end of each hunt.
Rabbits and rabbit chasing hawks have been coexisting in the same habitats for countless generations. It’s an uneasy relationship where predator and prey are evenly matched; a time tested formula where each encounter becomes a high speed, high stakes game of survival.
Human hunters do well to see a quarter of the rabbits they actually move. With superior vision and heightened natural instincts, hawks fare much better. But even for experienced raptors, speeding rabbits present difficult targets – especially within the dense tangle of heavy cover. The fact that you’ve found rabbits doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be putting any in the skillet. Even for veteran rabbit hawks, getting ahold of late winter cottontails can present a challenge.
Many of the rabbits we chase get away and we wish them well. Those that are brought to bag are appreciated for the trophies they are. Without exception, the conclusion of a successful hunt is an event to celebrate; a moment to savor. Mission fully accomplished; the hawk lays first claim to the prize. I sit nearby as the raptor enjoys his portion of the kill – raw, steaming and bloody. Once the hawk has fed, I put my share in the game bag. Later that evening, the back legs and backstraps will be pan fried in butter — golden brown. As always, it has been impossible to tell which of us enjoys chasing or eating rabbits the most. For today at least, we’ll call it a draw.