That's when I'd notice the suburban lawns, vacant lots and streets of the city where I lived teeming with cottontails.
Seeing rabbits running across streets and playing in yards at 2 a.m. each morning was puzzling. As an outdoors writer, I often heard complaints from hunters that rabbits were difficult to find. Why, I remember thinking, can there be so many of them in this city, with its manicured lawns, houses, busy streets and vacant wood lots, yet hunters can't find rabbits when they take their beagles to the country?
Then I began to think about why bountiful numbers of bunnies seemed to be thriving inside the city limits of a mid-size piedmont town.
The answer, of course, was habitat.
Cottontails are, in this respect, apparently a lot like white-tailed deer. Deer have made homes inside the boundaries of many N.C. towns. Hearing year-round complaints of suburbanites about deer eating their gardens and flowers, seeing carcasses of deer on N.C.'s roads during whitetail mating season (19,277 deer-vehicle collisions occurred during 2007) and noting the extra work for auto-repair shops should be plenty of evidence that whitetails don't mind living near humans.
The same apparently holds true for rabbits. But I knew the explanation for bunny picnics at 2 a.m. inside Burlington's city limits had to be more complex than that.
That deer thrive near humans is easy to understand - N.C. cities don't allow hunting of whitetails with guns. And there's plenty of fertilized tasty shrubbery, flowers and grasses for deer to eat in the suburbs without having to worry about being targeted by a rifle- or shotgun-wielding hunter. Obviously, deer like to live where they didn't have to worry about such hazards and where they have access to plenty of free food.
Rabbits also generally are safe from being hunted in cities. But similar general conditions that produce good rabbit habitat in the 'burbs also can be found at rural areas. It just takes a little time to find them because they're in a different form.
• Cover: Nearly every suburban neighborhood has storage buildings. Rabbits can nest in relative safety underneath such low-to-the-ground buildings. And lawns or weed-laden lots also provide cover, food and materials for nesting.
• Food: Nothing tastes better to herbivores than well-fertilized lawns, flower gardens and shrubbery. Small garden plots also provide a smorgasbord for city-raised cottontails.
• Predators: Now this part might be debatable, but the argument holds true - rabbits in cities have almost no human enemies and fewer natural enemies. As for cats, most city-dwellers keep their felines inside their homes where they're well fed and don't need to stalk wild game. Dogs, by law, have to be kept tied, inside a fenced yard or on leashes, so they can't chase bunnies or destroy rabbit nests.
Hawks and owls are the most efficient rabbit predators but only a few prefer city addresses.
So what lessons can be learned by hunters from the example of rabbits thriving in cities?
Once again, think habitat.
Obviously, in the country where rabbit hunting is allowed, food and cover are essential. Although predators usually are plentiful at rural areas, thick cover protects rabbits.
Several fire-fighters from Sanford's Stations 1, 2 and 3 love nothing better than hunting rabbits with beagles each Saturday during January and February.
But do they go to the deer woods to find rabbits? Nope. Do they like to hunt open broomsedge fields or farm crop fields? Negative once again.
They pick the thickest, nastiest places to turn their packs of beagles loose upon resident bunny populations.
"My uncle, Michael Cox, and Auburn Griffin are the dog owners," Chris Cox said. "The rest of us, Jeff Reid, Billy Coley, Ken Cotton, Mark Cline, Richard Ratz and Zack Shackleton, we're the hunters. We've been hunting together the last 3 to 5 years."
During a sub-freezing early morning during February, the firemen/rabbit hunters met at a Goldston country story, a few miles northwest of Sanford in Chatham County.
"We've got some land we hunt that's basically been cut over (timbered) and grown up into a really thick place," Chris Cox said. "It's 700 acres, and we hunt the edges (of the cutover) there during deer season. But when deer season ends, we hunt rabbits. We've got several other places where we hunt rabbits, but this is one of our best spots; it's pretty close to home for everyone."
Although their hunting area is large, the Sanford firemen only hunt small sections during each trip, perhaps 30 to 40 acres.
Cox said the hunters, who have other land-owner contacts across the central piedmont, also hunt rabbits from Goldston to Benson in Johnston Couny.
"But we'll go longer distances," he said. "We hunted a place three weeks ago near Creston (in Ashe County), which is 30 minutes north of Boone. If we hear there may be some rabbits for the dogs to chase, that's where we'll go."
Cox said conscientious rabbit hunters don't turn loose their beagles at the same land each Saturday but allow areas to rest a few weeks. That's why it pays to have more than one place to hunt rabbits or hunt small parcels of larger areas. Combing the pressure of predators with consistent hunting by humans, rabbit populations can be depleted.
"Our best day this year (2007) we killed 10 rabbits (at the Goldston property)," he said. "Last year our best day we shot 12.
"We probably killed 40 rabbits all month long (during January), but that's enough for us. Most of us are out here to hear the dogs run more than killing something."
But each place they hunt has one common characteristic - the terrain is so thick the hunters almost can't penetrate it while walking and trying to keep up with the 15-inch (tall) beagles. Of course, thickets are perfect for small beagles to squirm through while on a bunny's trail.
Fortunately for the Sanford hunters, their Goldston property had a gravel road leading through the cutover to a creek bottom. Trails also had been hacked through the briar and honeysuckle infested tangles. The hunters also had chopped paths about 10-feet wide through the thick jungle to their elevated deer stands placed at hardwood ridges and creek bottoms.
During rabbit season, these paths serve as corridors where hunters can follow the dogs or set up and listen to the beagles run bunnies through the greenbriar-infested thicket that's been re-planted with white pines after mature trees were cut lopped by loggers several years ago.
While some hunters stayed on the paths or the road, the dog handlers tried to keep pace with their beagles.
"One thing you really need if you're going to hunt this type of place - and it's about the only kind of land that'll hold enough rabbits to make hunting worthwhile - is brush-buster pants and jackets," Cox said. "If you don't wear jackets and pants that'll keep the briars from getting to you, you're gonna look like you were in a fight with a bobcat at the end of the day. Even with that, you're probably going to get your hands and face scratched up a bit."
But that difficulty in walking for hunters is precisely what makes tough terrain for humans good habitat for rabbits. Having the thickest, most-impenetrable living quarters is the key factor that means survival for country rabbits because it's almost predator-proof.
With coyotes increasing everywhere across North Carolina and few natural enemies for foxes (except coyotes), a long prohibition against killing raptors (hawks), plus the presence of night-hunting owls, the only places in the wild where rabbits stand a good chance to survive has to provide safety from ground and aerial attacks.
"About the only habitat in North Carolina where you can find a rabbit these days is cutovers," Chris Cox said.
A rabbit usually can escape a hungry Reynard the Fox or Wile E. Coyote by scooting through a briar maze while hawks and owls don't often attempt dives into such tangles.
Chatham County, particularly the southeastern part, has a mixture of cottontail and "blue-tail" or "swamp" rabbits and both varieties love cutovers. Cox said his hunters never know which type of rabbits the dogs will jump.
"Two weeks ago, the beagles jumped eight rabbits," he said. "We killed seven, and each one of them was a bluetail. That was kind of unusual."
Swamp rabbits don't actually have blue tails, but they're larger than cottontails (and have small brown tails) and exhibit a preference for wet areas. Once jumped, a swamp rabbit usually heads for the nearest water, often a creek or river, where the bunny will swim across in an attempt to make the dogs lose his scent.
"We'd rather jump cottontails," Cox said. "They'll just run in circles."
The strategy, once the beagles jump a cottontail, is to figure which way the rabbit is circling and place hunters at open areas where they may spot the bunny scooting ahead of the dogs. Well-used paths in the undergrowth at Goldston were the best places to look up and down the trails to get a quick glimpse of a fleeing rabbit. Spotting a bunny sneaking through the brambles and thick pines at the cutover was next to impossible.
"One thing you have to be careful about is not making a lot of noise," Cox said. "I know that sounds odd, with hunters moving and dogs barking. But I think rabbits can tell pretty much where you are if you step on dry sticks or brushes clothes against branches or something that makes noise. Talking also isn't a good idea if you expect to see a rabbit in front of the hounds. The rabbit for certain knows where the dogs are.
"So if you can hear the dogs, and it sounds like they're pushing a rabbit toward you, you need to be stand still and be as quiet as possible. If a rabbit hears a hunter in this thick stuff, he'll turn away and may be only a few feet from you. Instead of coming out into an opening or crossing a path where you could get a shot, he'll turn back (into the brush), and you'll never know he was there."
And that leads to a question of weaponry.
"I like to use a .410 shotgun loaded with No. 6 shot," Michael Cox said. "I also like to let kids use lighter gauges to get them involved in the sport. It doesn't take a large gauge shotgun to kill a rabbit."
There's also the safety factor. With men (everyone wears blaze orange caps and vests) and dogs spread out in a cutover during a rabbit "race" where hunters may not be able to see one another or the dogs, a light gauge gun is a good idea to prevent injuries from stray shots. Most hunters also try to get a little higher than the dogs by finding an elevated spot - a stump, rock or fallen tree. In addition to providing a clearer sight line, if a hunter sees a fleeing rabbit, his shot will be directed down into the ground.
"We'd rather jump cottontail rabbits because the dogs have better races, and you can train dogs better by jumping cottontails," Michael Cox said.
Before taking his younger dogs on a hunt, Cox trains them by placing them with older dogs inside an enclosed rabbit pen and letting them chase bunnies.
"The young dogs learn from the older ones," Cox said. "But nothing beats being out there at a real hunt and letting the young dogs learn from the old ones. That's why it's better for training to jump cottontails. They like to run a circle that's usually not too wide, and the young dogs can learn to keep on his trail by following the older dogs. But you jump a bluetail and, whoosh, he takes off in a straight line for water."
The Sanford hunters agreed that rabbit numbers are cyclical.
"You have good years and down years," Chris Cox said. "In 2006 we killed 80 rabbits. In 2007 we hunted from the end of deer season each Saturday and killed very few."
But that means searching for habitat that has qualities to protect rabbits. Ironically, the best places for bunny spots seem to be diametrically opposite - suburbs or cutover thickets - because both offer food sources and protection from predators. But since hunters and beagles can't chase bunnies in cities and towns, cutovers fit that bill the best of any N.C. habitat region.
Just be sure to wear some thorn-and-bramble-repelling outer clothing because hunters almost always will find bunnies in the briar patch these days.