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Washburn Outdoors: Iowa cottontails present late-winter challenge

Returning from a nearby corn stubble, a seemingly endless supply of ducks descended to the open creek. The stage was set. The signal was clear.

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Washburn Outdoors

Seizing the moment: Attila with late season cottontail. All the easy rabbits are long gone.

Rabbit hunting is one of my favorite winter pastimes. I especially love getting out in new snow. Fresh, crisp, and clean, the winter woodlands are never more beautiful. The rabbits sit tight, and every track is fresh.

I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. An important link in the natural food chain, rabbits have been a time-honored menu item for foxes, owls and, of course, humans.

When I first started tromping the winter thickets, it seemed that everyone hunted rabbits. By everyone, I mean everyone. Kids, dads, grandpas, didn’t matter – no one passed up a shot at a fat bunny. When suppertime rolled around, skillet fried rabbit was a familiar cold weather entrée.

My first rabbit gun was a hand me down, single shot .410. The gun’s external hammer had to be cocked back with your thumb and the fractured stock was held together by a couple of large wood screws and generous amounts of black electrical tape. But the old gun shot true, and my pile of bunnies began to add up. I soon graduated to a lever action .22 rifle which quickly proved to be a more efficient means of putting rabbits on the dinner table.

Although rabbit hunting remains a popular sport for foxes and owls, participation by human hunters is at low ebb. Today’s hunters would rather focus on more spectacular species such as deer, turkeys, or Canada geese. Small game, like squirrels and rabbits, isn’t even on the radar.

There are exceptions, and I’m one of those who still hunt rabbits on a frequent basis. With their white meat and delicately mild flavor, rabbits are as amazingly nutritious as they are good eating. Rabbit meat contains more protein but less calories, fat, and cholesterol than equal amounts of chicken, beef, or pork. Beyond its nutritional benefit, winter rabbit hunting is also a much more exhilarating way to obtain dinner than by reaching into the frozen food section of your local market – at least in my opinion.

Although I continue to hunt winter rabbits on a near daily basis, my tactics have changed. These days, instead of carrying a shotgun or rifle, I pursue cottontails in the company of trained goshawks. As native inhabitants of the far northern pine forests, goshawks appear to relish cold weather rabbit hunting even more than I do.

Washburn Outdoors

Our hunts begin with the hawk anxiously riding my gloved fist.

I’m flying two goshawks this winter. The oldest is an 11-year male I call Attila. Confident in his ability, Attila will eagerly chase anything from pheasants to snowshoe hare. He catches mallard ducks with ease. In January 2015, he even captured a hen turkey, a feat that may have surprised all three of us. Surprisingly, the erratic high-speed maneuvers of fleeing cottontails make rabbits the most difficult game for him to catch.

February is my favorite month for pursuing Iowa cottontails. Late winter bucks are starting to roam, and rabbits are increasingly active during daylight. By mid-February, nearly all of our bag will be comprised of males, which means our late season outings have zero impact on future populations.

Our hunts typically begin with the hawk anxiously riding my gloved fist as I slowly navigate a wooded tangle of gooseberry, blowdowns and brush piles. Although always impatient, the bird knows from experience that sooner or later a rabbit will burst from cover. What I know from experience is that the hawk’s reaction to the sight of fleeing game will be instantaneous and explosive.

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On today’s hunt, the action came quickly.

Less than five minutes into the woods, a big cottontail was routed from beneath a brush pile. Blasting from the fist, Attila became instantly locked in hot pursuit. Although the flight initially appeared to be a slam dunk, we were quickly reminded that all the easy rabbits are long gone.

Executing a sharp left, the cottontail entered an area of dense understory. Although the hawk mirrored the rabbit’s every erratic twist and turn, the heavy stem density prevented the ‘gos from connecting with its quarry. Safely reaching the timber’s edge, the sprinting cottontail made a spectacular farewell leap before disappearing into the tawny sanctuary of a knee-high grassland. The thick grass ran for a hundred yards or more. With the rabbit now burrowed beneath the vegetation, the chase was over.

Moving on, our hunt continued.

Washburn Outdoors

Iowa Cottontail: abundant, flavorful, and nutritious.

Minutes later, a second cottontail was dislodged from another pile of brush. Moving with incredible speed and agility, the rabbit immediately headed into the densest cover available.

Moving with even greater speed and agility, Attila quickly overtook the fleeing rabbit. A near carbon copy of our earlier attempt, the flight twisted and turned above an impenetrable curtain of heavy brambles. This time, however, there was one significant difference. Several yards down the trail, there was a clear break in the overhead canopy.

A potential game-changer, the gap in cover would provide the hawk with a single, split-second chance for success. The bird knew that and had already begun calculating his move. Arriving above the opening, the ‘gos seized the moment. A fraction of a second later, he also seized the rabbit.

The conclusion of any successful hunt becomes a moment to cherish. Today, I had witnessed two spectacular chases with the age-old drama playing out against a fresh and unspoiled, winter backdrop.

Attila and I would both be enjoying fresh cottontail for supper. As always, the hawk’s portion would be consumed, raw and steaming, on the spot. My share would be prepared in a more civilized manner a bit later. Who could ask for anything more?

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Reach Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog.

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