Cochise County Rabbits: The Desert Cottontail Rabbit

Here at the Border Fort in southern Cochise County, we encourage our local desert cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus Audubonii, also known as Audubon’s cottontail),  to hang out as close to the building as possible.  This is a coyote-rich environment, and we’re friends with the predators just as we are with the bunnies.  That makes for an interesting challenge, perhaps even a philosophical conundrum, but our system seems to be working so far.

Not everyone is willing to believe it, but we believe the coyote pack understands that  the cottontails who stay close to our house are part of the family.  As a courtesy, they (the coyotes) hunt mostly at some distance from our place despite dropping by to exchange greetings with us humans almost daily.

There’s still a high turnover in young cottontails, but we’re seldom without one or three on hand.

To give the bunnies a bit of a boost, an edge if you will–they don’t have that many of those–we’ve built a rabbit hide for them to use.  Some do, some don’t.  The hide is a 20′ length of 6″ PVC pipe, a straight 16′ center section with a 2′ jog at either end to give them visual privacy while also providing a back door exit should something nasty–like a hungry Mojave green rattlesnake–come slithering in the front door.

We also set out a bowl of celery and carrot slices on a regular basis.  The carrots go quickly, the celery not so much.

It’s entirely possible we’re accomplishing little more than helping the rabbits fatten themselves up before joining the coyote pack for lunch, but at least they eat well until it’s time to go.

This cottontail is taking a stroll to the bowl--the food bowl, that is.  Clearly, the camera and I were not considered threats.

This desert cottontail is taking a stroll to the bowl–the food bowl, that is. Clearly, the camera and I were not considered threats.

Researching the wabbits was intewesting.  It turns out these guys (& gals) are poop-eaters.  That is, out of their oversized large intestines, they produce not one but two types of excreted rabbit pellets.  The hard stuff we see lying around here and there is not nutritious.  They leave that alone.

However, the other type of pellet is softer, mucous-covered (think slime), deposited hours before it’s time for them to go foraging for the day, and eaten before they head out.  Eee-yech!!

Closest human analgoy I can think of would be refried beans, but we don’t drop the beans out of our butts before we chow down.

Now, think about this:  Rabbits eat the “upscale” version of their own excretion, and every predatory mammal out there–including lots of humans–eat the rabbits in turn.  Does that make us poo-eaters…or what?  Although, come to think of it, we do that all the time.  The cow dumps a load in the corral.  The farmer or rancher picks that load up and dumps it in the field where he grows wheat.  The wheat calls that fertilizer and grows tall, strong, and happy.  We whack the wheat, process it, and the next thing you’re know, we’re feeding it to our kids as the Breakfast of Champions.

Okay.  ‘Nuff about that.  Let’s get back to the cute, adorable little bunnies.

They breed fast.  One online article estimates that a producing female could theoretically, through her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, be responsible for 800 new rabbits roaming the territory per year.  So that’s one edge they do have (as a species), and they need it, being as tasty-edible as they’ve proven themselves to be.

Another edge is the way their eyes sit in their skulls, able to scan skyward, sideways, forward, and nearly straight to the rear at the same time.  But I got a huge surprise when I began taking tons of pictures of them a couple of years ago.  Never having been around domesticated rabbits, mostly just observing the wild types at a distance, I’d failed to notice:

They’ve got really narrow little brain pans!

That is, the skull is designed to provide more eyeball and ear anchoring room than anything else.  Some of the predators such as the coyotes are packing serious I.Q. power; there’s a reason the Little Wolves have not only survived but continued to thrive in the face of man’s encroachment on the wilderness.  Coyotes are smart.  Rabbits aren’t.

Now we know where we got the phrase:  “Dumb bunny.”

This is not meant as an insult to our desert cottontail rabbits.  We love them a lot, and they do at least understand many if not all of the threats facing them every moment of every day and night, nonstop.

Take a close look at the next photo.  If you had to squeeze your brain into something like that, do you think you could pass English or chemistry?  These little furry critters are all about threat avoidance, and they’ve got the sensory arrays to prove it.

Laundry Ditch Bunny 008

Great range of vision, leaving very little room for brain power between those necessarily wary eyes–not to mention the oversized ears, which nearly touch each other.

 That said, these desert cottontails are still some of God’s coolest creations.  With every hand–or at least every set of meat chompers–against them, they still have a good time just being alive.  They take pleasure in the simple things, whether enjoying each other’s company in small goups (we’ve never seen more than half a dozen together at one time) or standing tall to reach the most delectable bits of foliage remaining on the winter-quiet mesquite trees.

Our desert cottontails have a particular liking for mesquite leaves.

Our desert cottontails have a particular liking for mesquite leaves.

Oddly enough, we didn’t see much of them during our first year on this acreage one mile north of the Mexican border.  The desert cottontail species is widespread, covering a range from western Texas to southern California and as far north as eastern Montana, but they stayed invisible here until I’d built the Border Fort and we were living in it.  Then, sometime in late 2010, it became obvious that a young female rabbit had adopted the 4″ PVC discharge pipe from our French drain system as her safe house.

Which of course was anything but safe when the monsoon rains arrived right on time the following July.  Flash flood!

When the rains came, rabbits using the pipe hideout disappeared…but by early fall, when the pipe was once again dry and secure and worthy of occupation, they returned.  Not the same individuals, but others.  A younger generation.

See, there was another problem:  A desert cottontail rabbit is not a huge creature, but the adults do grow too large to fit comfortably inside a 4″ pipe.  On several occasions, we watched a “growing girl” (who’d come to think of the pipe as home) struggle to get inside, wrapped so tightly that she had to back out.

No room to turn around.

Which was when we decided to make a larger, all-season-safe hide from 6″ PVC, on a bit higher ground, draining to the outside at either end. In the meantime, I began to think maybe those bunnies weren’t really all that dumb.  Caught one thinking over the realities of Rabbit Life in a Coyote World….

Bee Rabbit 028

A not-so-dumb bunny keeps his priorities straight.

Photography also began making it clear that desert cottontails–just like members of other species–defy stereotypes if you look closely enough.  For example, an individual might be thoughtful, playful, serious, or just plain ticked off at the unfairness in the world….

Bee Rabbit 049

Angwy wabbit.

The above rabbit is the only one that’s ever come out looking ticked-off on film–at least so far.  More often, the constant need to stay  alert is more evident.

Rabbit Towhee Mocker 022

The darkness comes, when things that eat bunnies go bump in the night. See you tomorrow, Little One…if you’re still around to be seen and not pulling emergency duty as coyote poop.

The cottontails tend to be seen at dusk and then again very early in the mornings.  They clearly have a special feel for the mornings.  Wouldn’t you, having survived yet another night in a world where everyone else was bigger and meaner and looked at you like you were a sandwich?

Bunny Wabbit 039

Ah, the sweet, sweet smell of sunrise and dead bunchgrass.

Snow Rabbit 034

Mmm…carrots for breakfast!

UPDATE:  December 31, 2012

We got snow today.  That’s about a once-a-year occurrence around here.  We see it on the Huachuca Mountains at the higher elevations, of course, but down on the valley floor where we are, it’s a newsworthy event.

Which inspired the addition of the following photo.  It’s not a great picture, but the best I was able to get before the young cottontail decided to boogie on yonder to another mesquite tree out of sight of the camera.  Figured it was worth posting, just to prove we really did wake up to snow on the ground–which was gone by early afternoon.

I found it interesting that the bunnies (there were tracks of at least three desert carrot eaters out and about) and I were the only folks foolish enough to be tromping through the fluffy stuff before full light.  The rest of the wildlife, ranging from coyotes to birds to javelinas and even the whitetail deer, were wise enough to stay holed up until the weather warmed up.

It’s not like Montana.  They apparently knew they weren’t going to starve before the white stuff melted.

SNOW! 013

A young desert cottontail samples the mesquite a la mode for breakfast.

The rabbits, on the other hand, took it all in stride.  It was as if they were saying, “We don’t care if this is Cochise County or not;  a little snow’s not going to keep us from our daily rounds!”





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