Just when you thought it was safe to get back on the trails. (Cue the Jaws soundtrack.)  

With deer season over, many folks are back to hiking the byways and trails in their neighborhoods. So, some in my neck of the woods might have thought it strange to hear shotguns going off last Saturday.  

Though it is the season for duck hunting, it was not those quackers that were being pursued in a nearby field. One needn’t go too far down the rabbit hole to figure out what was going on. It is also the season for, as Elmer Fudd would call them, “wascally wabbits.” 

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife sets the season. This year, hunters can go after cottontail rabbits from Jan. 1 through Feb. 28 and then, again, in the fall. During those times, taking five per day and possessing ten is permitted, though there is no bag limit or total one can take.  

Islanders have historically pursued rabbits and there is also a contingent of folks from off-Island who come to the Vineyard to hunt. Native Wampanoags first hunted rabbits, though likely a different species than what is found here today.  

Tribal hunters sought New England cottontails, the rabbit species native to New England. The bunny we usually see is not the New England variety. It has been supplanted by the Eastern cottontail, a species introduced first on Nantucket and then on Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1800s as a game species.  

By the mid-1950s, the Eastern cottontail had proliferated. It is now the prevalent species across the state and the only species on the Island. Efforts are underway to protect extant populations of New England cottontails on the Cape and across the state, and there was an introduction of them on Nomans Land in 2019. One can only hope that they are breeding like rabbits.  

The species are hard to differentiate, though the introduced Eastern cottontails are a bit larger. Native New Englanders have shorter ears and are darker in body color. And though they were once here, they are no longer. Nor are three other varieties: snowshoe hare, black-tailed jackrabbit and the European hare, all introduced and none remaining. 

Regardless of species, rabbit has been called the “most usable prey on-Island,” and can be prepared in a variety of ways, from frying to inclusion in a meat pie or stew. It is also a small mammal that doesn’t require advanced butchery skills. And of course, those that eat it say it tastes like chicken.  

Hunting hares is not as easy as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Often dogs, especially beagles, are involved in the chase. Hunting on private property with the permission of the owner is allowed, and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank permits rabbit hunting on some of its properties.  Regulations allow licensed hunting by archery or firearms, though no poison arrows are permitted.  

While I don’t know how successful those weekend hunters were, it is hard not to appreciate efforts to procure and use local meat. The practice also honors family outdoor traditions, and indigenous practices that helped generations of Islanders feed their families.

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.