California Nature

Learn about California's beautiful and unique nature.

California Rabbits & Hares
Eight species of rabbits and hares occur in California. There are distinct differences between pikas, cottontails and hares. Pikas, also known as the whistling hare because of the high pitched call it makes when scurrying to its burrow, are rock rabbits. Most Cottontails have stub tails that are white underneath that shows when they are retreating from danger or running. They live in burrows and have babies that are born blind, hairless and helpless. Unlike hares, whose young are born precocial, rabbits remain in the nest until they grow fur, eyes open, and they are weaned at about one month of age. Young will lay very still and attempt to remain hidden while the adult will flush and run to create a diversion.

Myxomatoma, a type of pox, is hands-down the single most destructive virus to rabbits. Species specific to rabbits, it's a highly infectious disease caused by the Myxoma virus. It grows best in rabbit skin which makes it easy to contract from blood-sucking insects. Myxomatosis isn’t as rampant in the United States as it is in the UK, but the virus is common along the Pacific Coast of California and Oregon. While there are several known strains of the virus, the California strain is unique and has a 99% mortality rate. Myxoma’s ability to mutate each year is notorious, and the brush rabbit of California and Oregon is a natural host to the devastating disease.

The black eared jack rabbit is very fast and lives in desert areas of CaliforniaHares and Jackrabbits are the fastest moving of all rabbits. There are three species of hares native to California: the Black-tailed, the White-tailed and the Snowshoe hare. The Black-tailed and White-tailed hares are commonly called Jack Rabbits. The Snowshoe (or Varying hare) is known as the Snowshoe Rabbit. Their young are born in a shallow depression of flattened grass with their eyes fully opened able to fend for themselves quickly. Hares are distinguished from rabbits by their longer ears, larger feet and longer legs for jumping.

Jackrabbits are strict vegetarians. They rely on their speed to elude predators and, if they are lucky enough to escape, they will flash the white underside of their tail to alert other jackrabbits in the area. Unlike the Black-tailed Jack, which prefers to live in valleys and flat, open country, the White-tailed Jack lives in the hills and mountains. In their summer coat, in areas where the ranges of these two Jack Rabbits overlap, there may be some confusion as to identity. However the two may be distinguished by the color of the underside of their tails. The tail of the Black-tailed Jack is brownish underneath; the tail of the White-tailed Jack is white.

The Black-tailed Jack Rabbit (Lepus californicus) is a desert dweller, inhabiting all 4 southwestern deserts. Black-tailed Jackrabbits are a large, long-eared rabbit of the open grasslands and desert scrub of the West. Its fur is a dark buff color peppered with black, and its black-tipped ears are almost the same length as its hind feet.

The White-tailed Jack is the largest of California's hares. It weighs from 6 to 8 pounds. In winter it is sometimes mistaken for the Snowshoe Rabbit, because, in the colder parts of its range, individuals turn completely white. The range of the White-tailed Jack in California is restricted to the east side of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges from Tulare County north to the Oregon border.

The pygmy rabbit is very elusive and likes to hide in the snowThe Snowshoe Rabbit's range is a long narrow strip from the Oregon border down through the higher elevations of the Klamath, Cascade, and Sierra Nevada ranges as far south as Tuolumne County. There are a few snowshoe rabbits in the Warner Mountains in Modoc County. The Snowshoe is seldom seen for it prefers to live in dense fir thickets and in winter is isolated by deep snow. The Snowshoe Rabbit is more easily identified as it is the smallest hare. It looks more like a cottontail rabbit. Its ears are shorter than its head, but the underside of its tail is brown, not white like the cottontail.

The pygmy rabbit is the smallest and one of only two rabbits in North America that creates its own burrows. An adult is from 9 to 12 inches in length and weighs from a half-pound to 1 pound. Pygmy rabbits are confined to sagebrush dominated habitats in the Great Basin and contiguous intermountain areas of the western United States. InCalifornia, they occur in eastern Modoc, Lassen, and Mono counties Only weighing 1.1 pounds with a body length of 11.6 inches, the female pygmy rabbit is slightly larger than the male. Identified by its long ears, gray body color and large hind legs, the pygmy rabbit is unlike other rabbits because is has a lack of white fur on its tail. They have five toes on each foot and hairy cushions on the soles of their feet.

The desert cottontail is cosmopolitan. It is the most common rabbit of California’s valleys and deserts. Desert cottontails are common in grasslands, valley scrub, deserts, oak woodlands, and chaparral. Most common near water and shrubs. It is found along the Kern River, along almost all of the creeks in the valley, foothills, and desert. At nightfall many cottontails can be observed hiding in saltbush and other shrubs.

These rabbits have large erect ears with black tips. The characteristically upturned tail sports white fluffy fur that looks like a cotton ball, hence the name cottontail. Predators of the Desert Cottontail are eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats and humans. Native Americans kill them for their fur and hides. Running up to 30 mph from danger in a zigzag motion, they kick to defend themselves against small predators.

The female Desert Cottontail is slightly larger than the male. Active in early morning and late afternoon, it eats grass and cacti and rarely needs to drink water, getting it from the plants they eat. They get additional nutrition from eating their own feces just after consuming a meal.

The European rabbit (Oryctolagus) is extremely susceptible to the disease, whereas, the Cottontail (Sylvilagus) and the Jack rabbit (Lepus) are barely affected. The least affected rabbits act as carriers and can spread the Myxoma virus wherever they wander. Unfortunately the European rabbit is the pet and breeding species in America

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