Desert Cottontail

Desert Cottontail

Audubon's cottontail

Sylvilagus audubonii
Population size
Life Span
up to 2 yrs
30 km/h
700-1,200 g
36-42 cm

The Desert cottontail is a common species of cottontail rabbit native to North America. Unlike the European rabbit, it does not form social burrow systems, but compared with some other rabbits and hares, it is extremely tolerant of other individuals in its vicinity. The Desert cottontail is quite similar in appearance to the European rabbit, though its ears are larger and are more often carried erect. It has a greyish-brown, rounded tail with a broad white edge and white underside, which is visible as it runs away. It also has white fur on the belly.


Desert cottontails are found throughout the Western United States from eastern Montana to western Texas and in Northern and Central Mexico. Its eastern range extends barely into the Great Plains. Westwards its range extends to central Nevada and southern California and Baja California, touching the Pacific Ocean. These rabbits inhabit dry grasslands, shrublands, deserts and can also be found in less arid habitats such as a pinyon-juniper forest. They are also frequently found in the riparian zones in arid regions.

Desert Cottontail habitat map

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Desert cottontails are social creatures and often gather in small groups to feed. They are not usually active in the middle of the day but can be observed foraging in the early morning, and early evening. Desert cottontails do not create their own burrows, but rather take abandoned burrows of other animals. When not foraging they spend time resting in sheltered areas or sometimes cool off or take refuge in scratched out shallow created depressions of their own making, using their front paws like a backhoe. Desert cottontails are rarely found out of their burrows looking for food on windy days because the wind interferes with their ability to hear approaching predators, their primary defense mechanism. Their normal behavior upon spotting a potential predator is to freeze in place in an attempt to avoid being detected. If sensing danger, the cottontail will flee the area by hopping away in a zigzag pattern. When defending itself against small predators or other Desert cottontails, it will nudge with its nose, or slap with its front paws, usually preceded by a hop straight upwards as high as 2 feet (61 cm) when threatened or taken by surprise.

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Desert cottontails are herbivores (graminivores) and feed mainly on grass. They also eat the leaves and peas of mesquite, barks, fallen fruit, the juicy pads of prickly pear, and twigs of shrubs.

Mating Habits

January to late summer
28-30 days
2-6 kittens
3 weeks
kitten, bunny

Desert cottontails breed starting from January and until the late summer. Females give birth to their kits in burrows vacated by other mammals and line them with grass and with fur pulled from their bellies. The litter size is usually 2-6 kittens and the gestation period lasts from 28 to 30 days. They are born blind, naked, and helpless. The young grow fast and their eyes open by day 10. They are usually weaned at 2 weeks of age and in 1 week more they become independent. Desert cottontails have many predators and although mated pairs have multiple litters throughout the year, few young survive to adulthood. Those that survive grow quickly and are fully grown at 3 months of age.


Population threats

Desert cottontails are widespread and common throughout their range and none of the twelve subspecies are thought to be under threat at present. However, habitat loss due to land clearing and cattle grazing may severely affect the population of this species. Human-induced fires are also a potential threat for Desert cottontail populations. Another factor is its competition with the Black-tailed jackrabbit, because both have the same diet, and share the same habitat. When a season has been particularly dry, there is less plant life to go around. Cottontails do not fear the jackrabbits, however, Black-tailed jackrabbits are much bigger, and consume much more food at eating times. The Desert cottontail is also hunted for meat and for its fur and hides. It is also considered a game species, due to which it is hunted for sport.

Population number

According to IUCN, the Desert cottontail is common throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List but its numbers today are decreasing.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Desert cottontails rarely need to drink because they get water mostly from the plants they eat or from dew.
  • The Desert cottontail is coprophagic, meaning that it is re-ingesting and chewing its own feces to extract the nutrients as effectively as possible.
  • Desert cottontails are quite fast and can reach speeds of over 30 km/h (19 mph).
  • The Desert cottontail eats on all fours. It can only use its nose to move and adjust the position of the food that it places directly in front of its front paws on the ground. The cottontail turns the food with its nose to find the cleanest part of the vegetation (free of sand and inedible parts) to begin its meal. The only time a cottontail uses its front paws to enable eating is when vegetation is above its head on a living plant. The cottontail then lifts a paw to bend the branch and bring the food within reach.
  • Due to the variable temperature of living conditions, Desert cottontails must thermoregulate to minimize water loss during the hotter seasons. In open-desert areas, they can withstand for a short period with extremely high temperatures of around 45 °C. To cope with evaporative heat loss, they do panting and their ears which make up 14% of their body size may also help with thermoregulation.


2. Desert Cottontail on The IUCN Red List site -

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