Desert Cottontail Rabbit

 Desert Cottontail Rabbit

Scientific Name: Sylvilagus audubonii
Classification: Small game mammal
Size: Adults may attain the following dimensions: total length 359-435 mm; tail 39-61 mm; hind foot, 82-101 mm; ear 59-69 mm; weight 900-1375 grams.
Life Span: 1-3 years 


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.



Desert cottontails occur in a wide variety of habitats, including open upland habitats, sagebrush and other dry desertlike grasslands and shrublands, riparian areas and pinyon-juniper forests. They may occur in the same areas as black-tailed jackrabbits (lepus californicus).desert cottontails rarely stray far from their natal or birthplace area.



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.

A male's home range may be up to fifteen acres in size. A female's home range can be less than one acre.


Natural History:

Cottontails are 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.

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.


Food Habits:

Cottontails are herbivores, meaning they only eat plant matter. Ninety percent of their diet is grasses, but they also will eat forbs, shrubs, cacti, leaves, fruits, and seeds of other plants. They get most of their water from the plants they eat, or from the moisture that forms on top of plants, like dew.

When cottontails feed, their teeth cut clean slices through twigs or plants at a forty five-degree angle, instead of ragged edges.

Cottontails are coprophagic, meaning they eat thier own waste or pellets. Grass is hard to digest, so the rabbits eat the first-formed set of pellets after a meal. Additional nutrition is absorbed during the second digestive process. Pellets from the second set are very hard, fibrous and lack any nutritional value.



Cottontails can breed at eighty days old, then mate again soon after giving birth. The usual breeding season for the desert cottontail is from april to august or september during which time two to four litters of one to five young are born in a nest lined with grass and with fur which the mother pulls from her belly. The gestation period is between 28 and 30 days, and newborn young are born blind and furless and unable to care for themselves. They remain along in the fur-lined nest for about two weeks. Growth of the young is rapid, and at ten days of age they are well-furred, and their eyes are fully open. Weaning begins at about two weeks of age, and the young disperse in another week or two. The young are weaned at two weeks old, and they leave the nest area three weeks after birth.



The desert cottontail is nevada protected and designated as a small game animal. It can be hunted only during designated hunting seasons.


Reason for Status:

Historic tradition as a game animal.


Management & Conservation:

Nevada department of wildlife manages cottontails as an upland game mammal, with a designated hunting season. Natural predators of the cottontail include coyotes, foxes, bobcats, badgers, weasels, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, great horned owls, and large bullsnakes and rattlesnakes.


Fun 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.

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.