Cochise County Rabbits: The Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus Californicus

Our Lepus californicus (black-tailed jackrabbits) are plentiful in southern Cochise County this year. At least, Pam and I’ve seen more of the younger ones this summer, usually dashing across the dirt road leading from the Border Fort to Highway 92, than we ever have before. Whether this is due to greater happy hare production or a lower coyote population is hard to say.

We do know our favorite lady coyote, Angel, lost her mate a few months ago, most likely due to human causes, either shooting or poison. There’s not much else that can threaten a healthy coyote in this part of the desert.

Either way, though, it was a rare treat when the fully mature black-tailed jack suddenly smote my vision as I was heading over to the wellhead to fire up the generator to fill the storage tank yesterday. From the profile shown in the first photo, I’m guessing this one is a female…but please feel free to suggest otherwise if you see something I don’t.

The big hare–this one was pretty sizeable–had frozen in position, somewhat hidden by nearby mesquite trees but, as it happened, backlit nicely by bright midafternoon sunshine.

Naturally, I froze, too, except for the movement necessary to fish out the Canon PowerShot and start clicking away.

During our first months on the acreage, when we were still living in the camp trailer, lacking the funds necessary to start building a house, we once observed a pair of these adult black-tailed jackrabbits slip-loping along, sneaky-close to the ground, moving on an angle that brought them very close to and then right past our camper. Peering out of the window in great excitement, my wife also spotted why they were moving the way they were moving; no more than 80 yards back, though obscured from their sight by intervening bunchgrass and other vegetation, a pack of coyotes had picked up their scent.

Without hesitation, Pam yelled out to the coyotes, “Hey! You leave our bunnies alone!”

“Yip?!” One of the coyotes queried, clearly startled and concerned. “Yip?”

Pam repeated her demand in no uncertain terms. Abashed, the pack turned and slunk away, disappearing into the brush. The little wolves knew better than to mess with the Mama Voice of Little Red.

But that was five and a half years ago. Since then, I’d gotten one really great set of jackrabbit photos when a pair of the hares showed up just outside of my Border Fort bedroom a couple of years ago…but never, not once, had I ever managed to take a picture when I was out there under the sky with them. I’d seen one here and there, but always the animal had sensed me first (no big surprise) and was already in motion, hitting for deeper cover. It takes a few seconds to get the Canon into action. Better luck next time.

This jack had sensed me first, too, but had for whatever reason decided to freeze in position. With no more than thirty yards between us, that was a surprise…but I wasn’t complaining.

An unusual photo op.  The mature black-tailed jackrabbit had chosen to freeze in position rather than run immediately.

An unusual photo op. The mature black-tailed jackrabbit had chosen to freeze in position rather than run immediately.

Perhaps the most intriguing fact I uncovered while spot-checking the Internet for this article was the speed of the jackrabbit, able to hit 40 mph in short bursts. That’s crucial, especially since the speedy coyote tops out around 35 mph, leaving the jack with an edge in the sprint if not over the long haul. Our little desert cottontail rabbits, on the other hand, can’t manage much more than half of a coyote’s top speed; if they’re pursued and can’t find a briar patch in a hurry, they’re snacks.

Jackrabbit babies have at least one other outstanding survival trait besides speed and those humongous “jackass rabbit” ears that act as cooling vanes as well as predator radar dishes; they’re born with fur in place (as cottontail bunny babies are not) and with their eyes wide open (again, as cottontails are not).

On the other hand, cottontails at least hide in burrows for birthing while jacks don’t use burrows, just picking likely spots and delivering “wherever”, under a bush, maybe in a shallow, scraped depression, but not tucked away all that much, either.

Jackrabbits are also huge compared to the petite cottontails, but they seem to share the same range without conflict.

After snapping half a dozen shots of the jack in the same frozen pose, I figured I might as well move a little, encourage the hare to go ahead and disappear. Not that spooking a critter is my idea of a good time, but she was parked right along the route I had to take to get to the wellhead, so….

…I lucked out. The shutter snapped just as the jackrabbit was launching from her formerly frozen position, powerful back legs pushing, front feet well up in the air.

Okay, so the image is a little fuzzy, not quite in perfect focus. Most likely, I was in mid-step myself when the photo was taken. It’s still the first-ever picture I’ve gotten of a black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, in launch mode.

Black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, launching away to find cover after I got one step too close.

Black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, launching away to find cover after I got one step too close.