Desert Cottontails

By Kelly Kramer / Photo by Tom Bean

It's hard to think for too long about cottontails without Here Comes Peter Cottontail popping into your head. That is, if you grew up with a mother whose musical taste runs from Gene Autry to Gene Simmons, but that's beside the point.

In the Southwest, desert cottontails can be seen hopping down a bunch of bunny trails, particularly in near-desert grasslands and, occasionally, in piñon or juniper forests. You might even see them at sunrise and sunset in your very own yard, nibbling on grasses, as well as a variety of other plants, including some cactuses. Interestingly, desert cottontails don't require much water and often survive on quick drinks of morning dew or water from the plants they eat.

Indeed, their vegetarian diet keeps desert cottontails relatively small, although they can grow up to 17 inches in length and weigh up to 3 pounds. Ears and feet make up much of their petite frames, with ears measuring around 4 inches long and feet registering at 3 inches in length. Female cottontails are typically bigger than their male counterparts, an uncommon characteristic among other species.

Such a small stature helps the rabbits avoid predators — a very good thing, considering they have many. From bobcats and coyotes to big birds of prey, it seems that something's always picking up a cottontail. Or, rather, something's always "trying" to pick one up. Thanks to zigzag running patterns and top speeds of 19 mph, rabbits do have a fleeting chance. If running away doesn't do the trick, they've also been known to pummel their predators with a series of kicks.

When it comes to making baby bunnies, cottontails can produce several litters a year, especially if their food supply is abundant and the climate is cooperative. Young rabbits are born aboveground or in shallow burrows and are completely helpless. In most cases, they won't leave the nest until they're 3 weeks old. As they mature, desert cottontails tend away from social burrow networks, which is common among many other rabbit breeds. That's not to say, however, that they're antisocial — you'll commonly see desert cottontails getting hippity-hoppity with one or two other rabbits.