Length Head and body: 12-15 in. Ears: 3-4 in., black tipped. Tail: white below,
gray above. Weight: 12/5- 2¾ 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 1¼ in. wide, round -
back 4 toes 1½ in. wide, oblong. Diet: herbivorous. Scat: small round brown dry pellets.
Similar species: Brush rabbit, Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Shy. Social. Two local subspecies
a. arizonae and S. a. vallicola.
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.
The desert cottontail is cosmopolitan. It is the most common rabbit of
Californias 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
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.
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.
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
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.
Why its 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 dont 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
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 husbands
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