Summer brings longer daylight hours, luscious growth, an abundance of food for all in the animal world, and plenty of everything, including bugs, mosquitoes and – well, rabbits, those carrot- and grass-loving critters, both renowned and disparaged for their fecundity. Most of us never give much thought to rabbits. That is why I was delighted to read an article in the summer issue of Canadian Wildlife by Alanna Mitchell, who reminds us that rabbits serve an important ecological purpose and that the warming climate should change our way of looking at rabbits and their kin.

In her article, Mitchell points out that the lagomorpha – the order of rabbits, hares and pikas – are splendid and abundant food for higher predators, including humans. They are excellent gardeners that keep grasses in check and fertilized. They are soil keepers that help nourish the microscopic communities of the Earth by burrowing into the ground and letting in oxygen.

Mitchell says that to some, rabbits are voracious pests, capable of razing gardens or agricultural crops in the blink of an eye – and then come back for more. Not only that, but they are ubiquitous, native to every continent, except Antarctica and to Australia, where they were introduced with calamitous results. Rabbits can live in landscapes ranging from sea level to 5,000 meter high mountains. They thrive in the torrid swamps of the equator, as well as in the barrens of the high Arctic.

Given those facts it comes as a surprise that now the whole mammalian order that includes rabbits – covering two families, 12 genera and 87 species – is under severe threat from climate change. One quarter of the order is already classified as threatened. And ongoing climate change will add new dangers. If we lose rabbits we risk losing the lynchpin of a whole system. A tightly interconnected ecosystem, such as the one in the Arctic that is already under severe stress, might simply collapse if some of its pieces, i.e. species, vanish.

A conservative count by scientists suggests that, by 2080, nearly one-third of the Earth’s surface that is currently populated by rabbits, hares and picas will become uninhabitable for them. As a result, between 80% and 90% will be pushed out of their current ranges toward the poles and higher elevations, while nearly two-thirds will end up with less living space than they have now.

What can we do about this threat to rabbits and their kin? A paper from a study by Katie Leach of Queen’s University Belfast suggests that helping the creatures migrate might be the only option for conservation biologists. The paper also recommends focusing efforts on the smallest of the order because they are more vulnerable. A world without rabbits would indeed be a sad world – akin to a world without birds that Rachel Carson warned about so many years ago.

CHICORY
You know it is summer when you see the blue, daisy-like flowers of wild chicory along hiking trails and meadow edges. They bloom in July and last into September and are useful to man and beast alike. The fresh leaves can be used in salads or cooked vegetables. The flowers are edible too. The roasted and ground root of chicory can serve as a substitute for coffee, but contains none of coffee’s volatile oils, aromatics or caffeine. Among the animals that feed on chicory seeds are White-footed Mice and Eastern Wild Turkeys. Deer and rabbits enjoy chicory stems and leaves.

PRAIRIE CROCUS
This is the official flower of Manitoba, but its range extends across western Canada. Early blooming assures the avid attention of pollinators. If moisture is present, the seeds ripen in early June. If there is no moisture, the seeds will lie dormant until the following Spring. A hardy and long-loved perennial, the Prairie Crocus is popular with gardeners. But most of its popularity is due to the fact that it announces warmer days to come.

WOOD LILY
The Wood Lily is North America’s most widely distributed lily. It is found in tall grass prairies from eastern Canada to British Columbia. In Ontario it grows all the way to James Bay. Wood Lilies come in two varieties: the western variety has deep orange to scarlet flowers; the eastern variety has yellowish-orange blossoms. They can grow up to 1 meter high and thrive in open deciduous forests with rich, well-drained soil. First Nations used Wood Lily bulbs for food and medicine. Once cooked, the bulbs were applied to sores, bruises, swellings and wounds. The bulbs were also used to brew tea to treat stomach problems, coughs and fevers, and for helping women in labour.

SUMMER HAPPENINGS
By Canada Day, most Common Loon chicks will have hatched across Canada. Small chicks are surprisingly difficult to see. They are also vulnerable to predation by gulls or by ravens – especially if separated from their parents, which can happen when boaters approach too closely.
In early July Semipalmated Sandpipers leave their Arctic breeding grounds for wintering places in South America.
Mid-July is the birthing season for Western Garter Snakes. It continues to September, with each litter containing between one and 24 live snakes.
Late July is mating season for Martens. It’s the only time when males and females spend time together.
In early August male Redhead Ducks start their annual moult. They will not be able to fly for almost four weeks.
By mid-August the antler-growing season ends for caribou. Bull caribou will shed their antlers in November or December after mating; females keep theirs longer.
In late August the birthing season ends for Beluga Whales. Pregnant females give birth to a single calf after a gestation period of more than 14 months.

Enjoy the summer and all that nature gives us and be a happy hiker. S.G.

Sources: Canadian Wildlife Federation, The Ark (Nature Conservancy of Canada), Bird Studies Canada,
and personal field notes.