The Scuttlebutt on Rabbits and Deer
Early the other morning, I was backing out of the driveway when I saw a deer in our neighbors’ yard. As I put the car in gear, I thought, What a pretty doe. Then I thought–Oh dear, wasn’t I the one who wrote the Journal article about how House Rabbit Society prefers to not use the terms buck and doe for rabbits? (Boy/girl, male/female work well for us.) So why, in this context, did doe sound so appropriate to me?Over the course of numerous commutes, I’ve come up with three reasons why. The first is commercialism. Buck and doe, when used for rabbits, are primarily breeding terms, and most domestic bunnies are bred for commercial reasons. HRS is a nonprofit, nonbreeding organization. (Spay and neuter!) Deer, on the other hand, are wild animals. (Sadly, in some urban areas, due to humans upsetting nature’s balance, certain deer populations could also use some family planning.)
The second reason for a preference for a different terminology is something called sexual dimorphism. Biologists use this term to refer to the degree of physical differences between the male and female of a species. When looking at deer, it’s usually obvious who is who: he has antlers, she does not. This represents a strong degree of dimorphism. But bunnies are not so easily labeled. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to mis-sex rabbits. (A lot of Nicolettes have turned out to be Nicholases, and a fair number of Georges have been renamed “Georgette.”) That’s because, without looking between their legs, the most obvious physical difference between boy and girl bunnies is that most adult females have a fold of skin under the chin called a dewlap. For some, it is quite large; for others, it’s kind of small. The twist is that some male rabbits also have something resembling a small dewlap.
Thirdly, I do not feel bound to tradition because the naming process is so fickle. For instance, most of us know that a female fox is a vixen, but what is a male fox called? One should never get between a mother bear and her cubs, but what do you call her if she’s not a mama?
Dawn and the Tail-end of Day
Words change meaning over time, as well as fall in and out of use. A handy term also may not get used simply because a person hasn’t heard of it. Some other words rabbits and deer have in common are that both can be described as “herbivorous” “prey” animals (animals who eat plants who sometimes get eaten by other animals).
You can also refer to them by the time of day when they are most active: rabbits and deer are not “nocturnal” (active at night), nor are they “diurnal” (active during the day). They are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at twilight. This is a logical time for them to be up doing what they need to do: it’s too bright for nocturnal predators to see well, and too dim for daytime hunters.
Another interesting thing that deer and rabbits share is a special name for their tails. That short, erect tuft of fur on their backsides is called a scut. This word dates back at least 400 years, but it’s one you just don’t hear anymore (although it is in lots of dictionaries). Often their scuts act as flags for others of their species. When alarmed, they may flip up the underside of their tails to flash a message of danger–or excitement. (Note: Although the underside of a deer or bunny tail is often white, the actual color varies by species.)
Here’s a game to play while waiting at a stoplight or when emptying litterboxes: What other animals have scuts?*
Doo Drop In
The fenced yard, where our house rabbits get supervised play, has an apple tree. Last fall, a storm knocked a dozen apples to the ground, but by the next morning the windfall was gone. The rabbits had not been outside, so they hadn’t polished them off. My husband said it wasn’t him. Investigation yielded the telltale clue: fresh, scattered doo. They were small and oval, and on quick look I’d thought they were bunny poo. Then I realized we’d had visitors; to be exact: tall, crepuscular herbivores with a feature my bunnies don’t have–the ability to scuttle over a fence.
*Who else has scuts? Let’s see, goats, moose, bears…
House Rabbit Journal Fall 1998: Volume III, Number 11
National Geographic Society’s Wild Animals of North America (1960) and The Oxford English Dictionary.