The Nature of Kern County

LAGOMORPHS

Hares and Rabbits

by Alison Sheehey 1998-2013

Desert Cottontail

Sylvilagus audubonii

Kingdom - ANIMALIA     Phylum - CHORDATA     Subphylum - VERTEBRATA     Class - MAMMALIA     Order - LAGOMORPHA     Family - LEPORIDAE      Genus - Sylvilagus      Species - audubonii

DESCRIPTION

Length – Head and body: 12-15 in. Ears: 3-4 in., black tipped. Tail: white below, gray above. Weight: 12/5- 2 lbs. Dental formula: 2/1-0/0-3/2-3/3, Total 28. Mammae 8. Eyes: Brown. Eye shine – green. Pelage: back gray, outer legs tan, nape of neck tan, belly grayish white. Footprint: front 5 toes 1 in. wide, round - back 4 toes 1 in. wide, oblong. Diet: herbivorous. Scat: small round brown dry pellets. Similar species: Brush rabbit, Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Shy. Social. Two local subspecies S. a. arizonae and S. a. vallicola.

HABITAT

Desert cottontails are common in grasslands, valley scrub, deserts, oak woodlands, and chaparral. Most common near water and shrubs. It is found along the Kern River, along almost all of the creeks in the valley, foothills, and desert. At nightfall many cottontails can be observed hiding in saltbush and other shrubs.

RANGE

The desert cottontail is cosmopolitan. It is the most common rabbit of California’s valleys and deserts. It ranges into the plains of United States it is found from central Texas, all the way up to southwest North Dakota, west to southern Montana, in all of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and in southern Nevada. In California it occurs in all but the northern rainforests and higher mountain ranges. In Kern County the range of the desert cottontail includes the Mojave Desert and the Central Valley and foothills. Two subspecies are found in Kern county S. a. arizonae and S. a. vallicola. Their range is as follows: S. a. arizonae - Mojave desert to the W. slope Walker Pass and NW Part of Kelso Valley and S. a. vallicola - San Joaquin Valley, Walker Basin, Tehachapis, and Fort Tejon. Female cottontails have a home territory of approximately 9 acres and males use about 15 acres.

LIFE HISTORY

The cottontail is the most common rabbit in Kern County. These rabbits have large erect ears with black tips. The characteristically upturned tail sports white fluffy fur that looks like a cotton ball, hence the name cottontail. The only other common lagomorph of the San Joaquin Valley is the larger hare - Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus. Fairly easy to tell apart as the jackrabbit has a bold white eyebrow, much longer ears relative to body size, and does not have a cottontail. Cottontails are frequently found in social groups where jackrabbits are normally solitary. Its close relative the Brush Rabbit is extremely rare and secretive. Cottontails can be seen in rural areas anywhere there is vegetation: along roadways, waterways, and agricultural fields. A favorite species of children and adults alike (except farmers), rabbits are one of the more accessible mammal species. Cottontails live approximately two years in the wild. They are active at night (nocturnal) and twilight (crepuscular). Though after the young have been weaned many juveniles can be found foraging during the day. Cottontails will hide anywhere; in brush, under structures, or wood piles. Unlike their cousins the hares, cottontails are weak runners, they are seldom found far from protective cover. A prey species, cottontails are an extremely important food source for owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, and other predators.

The tracks of cottontails are composed of the long hind prints together in front of the two small, slightly staggered, front paw prints.

Their diet consists of grasses, leaves, twigs, cactus, row crops, bark, and fruit. Encircling the garden with clover can help to protect crops of vegetables from raids by cottontails as clover is a favorite rabbit food. Scat is small pea sized, round, brown pellets. The scat is quite dry although the rabbit will also produce soft, green pellets which they reingest (caprophagy) for important minerals and nutrients (all rabbits must have access to scat even domestic bunnies).

Mating occurs year round. Gestation is one month long. The female prepares a grass and fur-lined nest in a small depression on the open ground. Litters of one to six altricial (eyes closed, naked, helpless) young are produced, two or more times per year. Unlike hares, whose young are born precocial, rabbits remain in the nest until they grow fur, eyes open, and they are weaned at about one month of age. Young will lay very still and attempt to remain hidden while the adult will flush and run to create a diversion.

ECONOMIC IMPACTS

The cottontail is an important game species as approximately 15,000 California hunting licenses are issued each year. On average, 100,000 rabbits are reported killed each year by California hunters, though this is an extremely conservative estimate as most hunters do not report their take. A large number of cottontails (especially young rabbits) are killed on roadways each year. Cottontail rabbits can be an agricultural pest like their relative the jackrabbit. A group of rabbits can denude a small field of succulent shoots in one night. Normally they will not stray too far from cover, so only the field edges are most affected by them.

Cottontail are carriers of tularemia and relapsing fever. A rabbit to human vector the tularemia bacteria (Francisella or Pasteurella tularensis) can be transmitted through contact with blood, eating undercooked meat, or tick/lice bites. Hunters should wear rubber gloves when skinning and dressing cottontails to prevent infection. Thoroughly cooking rabbit meat kills the germ, making it safe for human consumption.

ANECDOTES

Why it’s Peter Cottontail!

During a recent springtime outing I encountered about two dozen cottontails browsing in a local farmers field near the Kern River just after dark. The rabbits were very obvious as their eyes shown brightly in my headlights. They would crouch and attempt to hide until I got close enough and then they all made wild dashes for the nearby bushes. What were they eating? One guess, why carrots of course!

On road kill.

I don’t even like to run over already dead animals, let alone live ones. But stuff happens, on some roads it is almost impossible not to take out the occasional young squirrel or rabbit. The only mammal I remember ever hitting was a cottontail. The Caliente Creek and Tupman Roads are blood alleys for rabbits. The day I hit the rabbit was a long day. I was working for the forest service and I had been office bound for months after an injury (another story), one of the bosses felt sorry for me and asked if I would like to go up to a stream restoration in the Piute Mountains. Of course I jumped at the chance. Only problem was when I got there, one of the other bosses got angry that I was out of the office. Just then one of the guys smashed his hand with a rock, a rather nasty looking sight. Well, how fortunate I had arrived just in time to haul him to the hospital. Back down the hill I drove with my moaning companion. Several hours and about ten stitches later, we were on our way back up the mountain.

By this time I had been at work exactly 12 hours, but by the power vested in government employees, I was not allowed to spend the night in camp. Because I was injured, I was required to drive two more hours through mountain roads back to headquarters. I was in a leased truck that if we scratched or in any way harmed, we were required to pay for the repair. With this in mind, I headed back down the mountain. Driving as carefully as I could on the washboard dirt road, the truck was getting terribly dusty but no harm came to the truck. I finally reached paved road and only one more hour of driving to make it home. Caliente Creek Road is an open range road, lots of cows, and lots of manure. I hit a really slick patch of fresh, liquid stuff that sprayed all over the truck, but no scratches. About 3 miles down the road around a blind turn - whack I hit a rabbit, icky and bloody, but no scratches on the truck. Another mile and another patch of slimy manure. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and there were no scratches on the truck. Well, guess what, I had racked up so many hours that I had to take the rest of the week off. You know that boss that got angry, well she ended up cleaning all the dirt, blood, and BS off the truck.

On saving injured animals.

My former husband, bless his heart, is one of the most sensitive men I have ever known. One night we encountered an injured rabbit on the onramp to Alfred Harrell Highway. I was driving, so I asked him to jump out and pick up the rabbit so we could nurse it back to health. He looked at me with a slightly panicked expression, for I am the biologist in the family. Grudgingly, he went out and tried to pick the rabbit by its ears as he had heard you are supposed to do. Well, this is one of those old wives tales, rabbits hate being picked up by the ears. The near comatose rabbit squealed as my dear sweet husband’s expression went from slight to absolute panic. He does not like to hurt anything. Another lesson learned, I parked and got out and picked the rabbit up by cradling it in my arms, where it immediately nestled its face under my arm. We took him home and when he was a little more alert, we fed him some broccoli and lettuce. He looked no worse for the wear and soon as he was up and around. We then returned him to a field close to where we found him.

REFERENCES

1999. Collections record - Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. UC Berkeley.

Burt, W. H., and R. P. Grossenheider. 1980. A field guide to the mammals: North America north of Mexico. Third ed. Houghton Mifflin: New York.

Cole, R. E. 1999. Collections record - Museum of Wildlife & Fisheries Biology, UC Davis. http://www.tanagerweb.com/museum/mwfbhome.htm

Gap Analysis. 1999. Wildlife & Data Analysis Branch - Natural Diversity Database. CDFG - Habitat Conservation Division. Sacramento. http://www.dfg.ca.gov/

Hafner, J. C. 1999. Collections record - Moore Laboratory of Zoology and Department of Biology, Occidental College: Los Angeles.

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s mammals of the world. Sixth ed. VII. Johns Hopkins UP: Baltimore.

Rezendes, P. 1992. Tracking & the art of seeing: how to read animal tracks and sign. Camden House: Charlotte, VT.

Kern Introduced Species - a short introduction and a list of plants    Checklist of Exotic Animals introduced to Kern County 

Bullfrog     Virginia Opossum     Fox Squirrel     Rock Pigeon     Spotted Dove     Ringed Turtle Dove     Eurasian Collared Dove

Rose-ringed Parakeet     European Starling     House Sparrow     Hodgepodge of introduced Species

California Ground Squirrel     Coyote     Deer Mouse     Desert Cottontail     Kit Fox     Lodgepole Chipmunk     San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel     Kern County Mammals     Kern Mammal Checklist

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This page was created September 26, 1999. 

Copyright 1998-2013 Nature Ali • Weldon, CA 93283 • page updated 09-Jan-2013