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Bunny Business
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Bunny Business 

Ears up and always alert for danger, the desert cottontail finds time to enjoy a life that is fraught with perils and often short. The cottontail is at the bottom of the food chain, but this small, but determined member of the lagomorph family gives the impression of enjoying every moment. Cottontails are successful and abundant. They live fearlessly among their human neighbors, despite the hazards, and are easy to observe and get to know.
All photos by Suzanne Guldimann

Rabbits are everywhere in the Santa Monica Mountains in spring: zigzagging across the road at dusk, sunning themselves in a peaceful patch of warmth in the garden, running and leaping in the elaborate rituals of rabbit courtship. Soon, the females— does—will be busy around the garden gathering nesting materials. In a few short weeks, the kits—perfect, miniature versions of the adults—will be exploring the world on their own. Timidly venturing out from the safety of shrubs or brush to nibbling on tender fare in the flower bed or even on the patio. We live alongside wild rabbits all year long, but they only make their presence felt in the spring—there’s a reason why they are associated with this season of rebirth and renewal, the season of Easter.

Long before the rabbit became associated with Christian iconography, this was a sacred animal in other cultures. There is a theory dating to the early 19th century that Easter is derived from a European moon goddess named Ostara or Eostra. The moon is also connected with rabbits in many Asian cultures—visible when the moon is full as the pattern created by the surface craters. The surface of the moon also features a rabbit in Mayan and Aztec tradition. 

There is a rabbit-headed goddess in ancient Egypt—Unut.  Rabbits were the messengers of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and fertility.  In Native American tradition rabbits are sometimes trickster spirits, and sometimes messengers. Anyone who has ever stopped to commune with a rabbit by moonlight in the garden can have no doubt that this is an animal that deserves its mythical heritage.

The most common rabbit in the Santa Monica Mountains is the desert cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii, also known as Audubon’s cottontail. There are the rabbits one sees at dawn or dusk on the lawn, or nibbling the flowers in the pots on your patio when they think you don’t notice.

This young rabbit was born under the author’s garden shed, and is just beginning to venture forth on its own. The doe is highly protective of her young while they are nursing, but once they are old enough to leave the nest, they are on their own.

Desert cottontails have adapted to urban life and are found wherever there is enough food and shelter. This can be a problem, since the rabbit’s idea of dinner includes just about everything humans like to grow for food and many ornamental plant species, but it also makes this species one of the most familiar wildlife species, an animal that is easy to observe and to get to know as a neighbor. 

This area is also home to brush rabbits, Sylvilagus bachmani. These rabbits are slightly smaller and grayer than the desert cottontail and have slightly shorter, more rounded ears. It can be hard to tell the two species apart, but brush rabbits are much less common. Nine times out of ten, it’s probably a desert cottontail. 

Historically, there were black-eared jackrabbits in the Santa Monica Mountains. Jackrabbits are members of the hare family, larger and more solitary than brush rabbits or desert cottontails. They are still relatively abundant in the high desert. The most recent National Park Service Natural Resource Condition Assessment still lists black-tailed jackrabbits in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, but no one the author knows has seen one in our local mountains in years, and there are no reports on iNaturalist for this species in the area. 

It’s a common misconception to think of rabbits as rodents. They aren’t. Rabbits and hares, together with pikas, belong to the order lagomorpha. Today, it’s a fairly exclusive club, with just 102 extant species, made up of 37 species of pika, 33 species of rabbit and cottontail, and 32 species of hare. The fossil record reveals a much larger and more diverse family, with 75 genera and more than 230 species.

Cottontail courtship involves a cross between tag and country dancing, with elaborate leaps and figure eight patterns. Occasionally, the doe becomes annoyed and boxes the buck’s ears. Males sometimes fight with each other over females, and females can be territorial, especially when resources are limited, but on the whole, rabbit society is remarkably easy-going.

Cottontail rabbits are year-round residents, but they seem to make their presence felt more in the spring. They  are out on the road at dusk and dawn, and in the garden, sunbathing, eating and engaging in the complex, dance-like rituals of rabbit courtship, which involve leaping and chasing. 

Desert cottontails lounge in the sun like contented house cats and nibble the flowers in the garden with evident enthusiasm. They don’t dig burrows or form colonies like many other rabbit species, but they seem to enjoy each other’s company and often congregate in small groups of three or four. The list of collective nouns for rabbits includes a “bevy”, a “flick” and a “drove” and if one was lucky enough to see more than one jackrabbit, that would apparently be a “husk” of jackrabbits.

Does can be spotted this time of year gathering dried grass to line their nests, which might be located in an abandoned burrow created by a ground squirrel, the space under a shed, or a patch of deep brush. Kits are born blind and helpless. The only defense the mother rabbit has is a well-chosen nest site that is hard for predators to spot. 

The mortality rate for young rabbits is extremely high and a doe usually has multiple litters throughout the year. If she’s lucky, she may live to be two or three years old. The average life span is around 15 months, although in captivity, individuals have reportedly lived to be as much as eight years old. 

Rabbits are on the menu of every predator, from owls and snakes to the bobcat who specializes in hunting rabbits, and even the domestic cat who will hunt rabbits for fun. Rabbits are also the frequent victims of rodent poison, and vehicle strikes—the zigzagging dash at speeds up to 20 mph they’ve evolved to evade hunters doesn’t help them to avoid cars. Every second could be this little animal’s last, but despite a precarious existence, or perhaps because of it, rabbits give the impression of enjoying life to the fullest. 

Desert cottontails have good climbing skills and have been known to climb up stairs, onto decks and picnic tables, and even into pots to gain access to tender, tasty flowers and vegetables. They can also fit through surprisingly small spaces. The best way to prevent misunderstandings is to fence off anything that is off limits with chicken wire or hardware cloth.

Although they are prolific and adaptable, rabbits are also fragile and can die from shock or fear. We can help them by letting them live their lives without human interference. Keeping cats indoors and making sure dogs aren’t out after dusk or before sunrise—the times when rabbits are most active, can help prevent fatalities. Discontinuing the use of rodenticides and slowing down on the road helps not just rabbits but many species of wildlife. 

The key to co-existing with rabbits is protecting the entire food chain, including the predators that keep rabbit populations in check. We are all connected with each other in this neighborhood—prey and predator, wild and human neighbors. That one small rabbit in the garden at dusk is part of something big.

Wherever one goes in the garden or on the trail, chances are high that there is a rabbit or two nearby, especially in spring, when food is abundant. Cottontails are experts at staying completely still, and hiding in plain sight.

Editor’s note: Pet rabbits are a big responsibility. These intelligent and affectionate animals can live for more than a decade and need a lot of attention. Rabbit rescues brace for an onslaught of discarded live bunnies after Easter. A stuffed bunny is a much better choice for a child’s Easter gift than a live one.

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