Cottontail & Brush Bunnies

by Carol Denny

When we think of cottontail rabbits, we think of Easter bunnies, Peter Cottontail, Br'er Rabbit, and Thumper, but these are the stuff of storybooks.

With short, broad ears, fat, round bodies, soft fur, and a fluff of a tail which, with its white underside, looks like a ball of cotton, most people find the cottontail's appearance endearing.

Found only in the Americas, cottontails (Sylvilagus) are the most common rabbit in this hemisphere, ranging from Alaska to parts of South America. There are fourteen species of cottontail rabbits, with the brush rabbit being one of them. Brush rabbits range along the Pacific Coastal region, from Canada to the tip of the Baja Peninsula. In Oregon they range from the Coast eastward to the Cascades. Like their cottontail cousins, brush rabbits (S. Bachmani) have the typical "cotton" tail. Brush rabbits have brownish-gray fur with a white underside. These creatures are adaptable and can live almost anywhere that there are fields, woods, or swamps. They live in towns around parks and houses, but prefer brushy habitat, feeding on wild grasses and plants, cultivated plants, bark, buds, and twigs.

Cottontails do not live in colonies, and the brush rabbit is one of the few species that build their own burrows, which they use as observation posts. Brush rabbits have specific, well-marked trails that are used repeatedly, and they do not wander more than twelve or thirteen meters (roughly thirteen to fourteen yards) from the cover of brush. Because of this, a good biological control is to clear a fifteen-meter (approximately sixteen and one-half yards) area around the problem areas.

Cottontails have excellent hearing, large eyes with a wide vision range, and a keen sense of taste, but do not have a well-developed sense of smell. All cottontails are excellent swimmers.

Brush rabbits are normally timid, and their best defense is speed, but they can defend themselves by biting and kicking; brush rabbits can even climb trees. A mother brush rabbit can drive off a snake or even a raccoon twice her size when defending her young. Because a wild rabbit can be quite vicious in defending itself, it is not a good idea to try to pick one up.

All rabbits, including brush rabbits, are prolific breeders, having three to seven litters a year, and producing one to twelve offspring in each litter. Each rabbit can produce up to thirty-five offspring each year. In the wild, 85 percent of the young will die before they reach the age of one year, mostly because they are hunted by a wide variety of predators. They are prey for foxes, wildcats, lynxes, coyotes, badgers, weasels, hawks, eagles, dogs, and humans. In spite of slim odds for survival, cottontails still thrive.

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