Monday, March 12, 2007

Animal of the Week March 12, 2007 -- Come to the tea party

So, as it is now March, this week's animal of the week is Lepus europaeus (european or brown hare). The March Hare, a sartorially elegant guest at the famed tea party of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Brown hares rarely, if ever, wear jackets or, for that matter drink tea. Rather, they bomb around the fields of northern Europe and western Asia as speeds of 70 kilometres per hour.

At this time of year, you may well see hares careening around meadows, leaping over one another, and engaging in the famous boxing behaviour. Although for many years, people believed these sparring couples were males competing for access to females. But turns out, that they are females fending off unwanted attention too early in the breeding season. When the females are ready, they stop boxing, go at it like rabbits (not very often, just quite similar in shape and mechanics), and a few weeks later they give birth to their young, leverets, in a small hollow or flattened patch of grass, a form, on the surface, not in a burrow.

Keeping a low profile for the main part of the year, their sudden appearence in spring and mysterious habits for the remainder of the year mean that hares have featured prominently in European folklore and religions. The pre-Christian English goddess Eostre whose festivals were celebrated in Spring, could transform herself into a hare, that is if she ever existed, and wasn't a creation of the Venerable Bede's. The association of hares with Eostre's festivals and with the Ostara festival in pagan Germany may be the origins of the Easter bunny.

Maybe they ain't. The phrase "mad as a March hare" was widely used in Lewis Carroll's time, the earliest written record is in John Heywood's 1546 collection of proverbs. Heywood may have mis-spelled his name, but he collected a great many pithy sayings: "While the sun shineth, make hay", "lve me love my dog", "This hitteth the nail on the head", and "All is well that ends well" among them.

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