Desert Cottontail

Sylvilagus auduboni

Cottontail

Cottontails are named after their tail, which is shaped like a cottony ball. The desert portion of their common name arises from their distribution across the arid lands of the American Southwest and Plains states. "Auduboni" honors John James Audubon, a famous bird painter and naturalist.

Family Leporidae - Rabbits and hares
Order: Lagomorpha

Desert Cottontail and Jack Rabbits Video
Take a look at the desert cottontail, named after its cottony-ball-shaped tail, and the Jack Rabbit, a true hare.

Habitat

Desert cottontails occur in a wide variety of habitats, including dry desertlike grasslands and shrublands, riparian areas and pinyon-juniper forests. They may occur in the same areas as black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus).

Range

Found throughout the Plains states from eastern Montana south to west Texas, west to central Nevada and southern California, south to Baja California and northern Mexico. Found up to six thousand five hundred feet in elevation. Other species replace the desert cottontails at higher elevations.

Cottontail, showing orange brown throat patchDescription

The adult desert cottontail is light colored, tan to gray, with a yellowish tinge. The underside of the body is whitish. It often has an orange-brown throat patch. The tail is rounded and looks like a cottonball, but is darker above, white below. The length of a desert cottontail is thirteen to seventeen inches; ears average three to four inches long; and the average weight is two to three pounds. Females are larger than the males.

Hind feet are large and average three inches long. When the rabbit takes short hops, its tracks look like the number "7," with the two hind feet planted first, then the two front feet set behind.

The desert cottontail is born in a nest lined with grass and with fur which the mother pulls from her belly. The nest is located in a depression, abandoned badger or prairie dog burrow, or beneath a shrub.

A female may bear young year round (California) or up to eight months of the year. She may bear twenty to thirty young in four to five litters. A normal litter has two to six young, which are born blind, furless and unable to care for themselves (altrical). The mother returns to the den site to feed her young. The young are weaned at two weeks old, and they leave the nest area three weeks after birth.

Cottontail tracksHabits

Active early morning, late afternoon and at night, but may be seen at any time of the day. During the day, cottontails may rest in the shades of large shrubs, in burrows or within thickets. In the hot months of summer, they conserve moisture and energy by avoiding activity during the hot, dry daylight hours.

Cottontails are herbivores, and they eat a wide variety of plants, including grasses, forbs, shrubs and even cacti; however, ninety percent of their diet is grass. Cottontails will forage on domestic crops, even the bark of fruit trees. They get most of their water from either the plants they eat or dew that forms on the plants. When cottontails feed, their ever-growing incisors cut clean slices through twigs or plants at a forty five-degree angle. Other browsers, like deer or bighorn, chew the tips and create a ragged edges.

Cottontails are coprophagic, meaning they eat their own feces. Since grass is difficult to digest, the rabbits eat the first-formed set of pellets after a meal. Additional nutrition is extracted during the second digestive process. Pellets from the second set are very hard, fibrous and lack nutritive value.

When alarmed, a cottontail can run up to twenty miles per hour in a zigzag pattern to escape predators. Often, the cottontail runs to a protective location like a burrow or thicket. If cornered by a small predator, like a weasel, a cottontail may "bowl over" the predator and give it a kick with its powerful hind legs as well. A cottontail may also freeze when danger lurks, and scrunch down to blend into its surroundings. The coyote is an opportunistic predator that uses a variety of hunting techniques to catch small mammals likes rabbits and squirrels, which comprise the bulk of its diet.

Interesting Facts

  • To avoid overheating, desert cottontails have higher activity periods at night; light-colored fur to minimize absorption of solar heat; and large ears, with blood vessels just below the skin level, that can radiate body heat to the air. When temperatures climb above eighty degrees Fahrenheit, the cottontails’ activity level decreases significantly.
  • Cottontails can breed at eighty days old, then mate again soon after giving birth. Adults live to about two years old.
  • Cottontails are preyed upon by a number of predators, including golden and bald eagles, great horned owls, ferruginous hawks, badgers, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and humans. Rattlesnakes may prey on the young. In the American Southwest, Native Americans hunted or trapped cottontails for meat, sewed the furs into blankets, used the hide to make glue, and used individual hides to make pouches.
  • A male's home range may be up to fifteen acres in size. A female's home range can be less than one acre.
  • Cottontails have been known to swim or climb trees when pursued by prey.
  • The cottontail's tail functions as an alarm signal. When a rabbit raises its tail, the large white patch of fur on the bottom is exposed, serving as a warning signal to other cottontails.
  • One characteristic of the lagomorphs is that there is a latticework of openings on each side of the skull. These are called "fenestrations." The word is from the Latin word "fenestra," meaning "window."
  • Desert cottontails are more "colonial" than jackrabbits. They may not interact with their neighbors, but they tolerate closer neighbors than do jackrabbits. Desert cottontails rarely stray far from their natal or birthplace area.

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