Hop aboard as we examine the lives of these prolific critters of Yolo County
By Jeff Hudson
Enterprise staff writer
You may have seen them on the university campus at twilight as you’re driving to the Mondavi Center, hopping across Old Davis Road.
Or you may have seen them on the east side of town, at the Davis wetlands, near the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
Or you may have seen them on the fringes of golf courses around the city, or bounding across Mace Boulevard to the south of town, or any number of other spots where Davis and the surrounding rural landscape interface.
But chances are, you didn’t see them for long. That’s because rabbits move fast — their quick getaway speed being a natural key to their survival in the wild.
There are basically two kinds of rabbits living in these parts: the black-tailed jackrabbit and the smaller desert cottontail. They have somewhat different physical traits and habitat preferences.
The black-tailed jackrabbit isn’t actually considered to be a rabbit in the scientific sense, it’s considered a hare. Black-tailed jackrabbits can weigh between 3 and 9 pounds, with a body length of 17 to 21 inches — comparable to a large house cat. Black-tailed jackrabbits have grayish-brown bodies and long black-tipped ears, with relatively long front legs and even longer hind legs.
In the Sacramento Valley, jackrabbits are usually found in open or semi-open areas rather than in dense brush or woodlands. According to the UC Integrated Pest Management website, “jackrabbits are quite adaptable and inhabit areas around the fringes of urban and suburban developments, greenbelts, golf courses, parks, airports and agricultural lands” – a pretty deft description of the landscape in and around Davis.
Jackrabbits also leave behind evidence. “A good sign that jackrabbits are present is their coarse, circular fecal droppings or pellets found scattered over an area,” according to UC IPM. “They also make a depression in the soil, called a form, beneath a bush or other vegetation and use it for hiding and resting during the day.” In other words, jackrabbits don’t go down the proverbial “rabbit hole.”
When jackrabbits are born, their eyes are open; they are born fully haired, and the young start hopping around within a day.
As for diet, jackrabbits eat depending on what’s available. “They prefer succulent green vegetation; grasses and herbaceous plants typically make up the bulk of their diet. Feeding usually begins during the evening hours and continues throughout the night into the early morning … Jackrabbits can survive without a supply of drinking water.”
Jackrabbits don’t migrate with the season, according to UC IPM, although “If food and areas for shelter are separated … daily travel of one to two miles round trip between these areas is not uncommon.” The jackrabbits travel the same trails habitually, “producing noticeable paths.”
The desert cottontail is smaller with shorter ears; between 12 and 15 inches long, weighing between 1.25 and 1.75 pounds, with pale gray fur with yellow tints. Desert cottontails like to nest in thick shrubs, woods or rocks and debris that provide dense cover, and they tend to look for food in orchards near brushy habitats, ravines, riparian areas and woodlands (as well as city parks with shrubs dense enough to provide cover). And when desert cottontails give birth, the young are born naked, with eyes closed, and they stay in the nest for several weeks.
“Most cottontails have a home range of up to 10 to 15 acres,” according to UC IPM. “A good habitat, such as a park with a clump of low-growing junipers about 30 feet wide, can harbor 10 to 15 cottontails, but normal density is considerably less — an average of one rabbit per acre. In urban areas with few predators the populations will be considerably more… Cottontails don’t exhibit the same magnitude of daily travel as seen in jackrabbits, although they do make habitual use of travel lanes within their home range.”
Another thing about rabbits: they are usually hungry. “Rabbits can be very destructive in gardens and landscaped places. This is particularly true where uncultivated lands border residential zones, parks, greenbelts or other landscaped places,” according to UC IPM.
A partial list of crops and plants that rabbits damage:
* Vegetables: beans, beet, broccoli, carrot, lettuce, asparagus and peas
* Tree and berry crops: almond, apple, blackberry, cherry, citrus, pistachio, plum, raspberry and strawberry
* Herbs: cilantro and parsley
* Ornamental plants: various flowers, shrubs, trees and turf
In terms of trees, rabbits tend to gnaw the smooth, thin bark from young trees, which can girdle and kill the tree near the base of the trunk. The rough bark of older trees discourages gnawing. Rabbit-damage to trees is most typical in winter and early spring, when other food sources are less available.
Rabbits also gnaw at twigs — as do deer. “At first you might confuse a rabbit’s twig clipping with deer browsing,” according to UC IPM. “However, you easily can identify deer damage on woody plants if it occurs above a height that rabbits can reach — about two feet — and by carefully examining the damaged twigs. Deer have no upper front teeth and must twist and pull when browsing, leaving a ragged break on the branch. Rabbits clip twigs off cleanly, as if with a knife.”
Rabbits will also gnaw and cut plastic irrigation lines, especially small diameter tubes.
And, oh yes, they really do “breed like rabbits,” to a prodigious degree.
“The breeding seasons for jackrabbits runs from late January through August — though breeding is possible during any month of the year where winters are mild,” according to UC IPM. “Litters average between two and three young, and jackrabbits can have as many as five to six litters per year.”
Cottontails also reproduce at rapid rates. “The breeding season for cottontails begins in December and ends in June. The average litter size is usually three to four young, and there can be up to six litters per year,” UC IPM reports.
Rabbits have historically been common in this part of the world. In 1896, researcher T.S. Palmer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote the book, “The Jackrabbits of the United States,” in which he observed “Nowhere in the United States, and perhaps nowhere in the world, except in Australia, are rabbits so abundant as in some parts of California.”
Palmer’s book also describes — including photos — the “rabbit drives” that were held in some California counties in the late 1800s. These rabbit drives involved a V-shaped fence that extended over a broad landscape. A large group of people would start beating the bushes at the open end of the V, driving the rabbits forward into a smaller and smaller area as the V-shaped fencing narrowed. The rabbits then would be clubbed on the head and killed. Rabbits have comparatively thin skulls and can be dispatched fairly easily — evolution developed them with light bones for a quick getaway, rather than for sturdiness in conflict.
Several California counties offered bounties to defray the expenses of these rabbit drives; Palmer notes that in Fresno County, one rabbit drive drew about $500 in bounty money, “indicating that more than 33,000 (rabbit) scalps were received.” Another drive in Modoc County resulted in 27,559 scalps turned in for bounty money.
Predators like coyotes, foxes, bobcats, hawks and other raptors prey on rabbits. A large dog or a crafty house cat can sometimes capture a small rabbit, as well.
And people sometimes eat jackrabbits and desert cottontails as well — though they are not particularly popular with hunters. This is partly because of a widespread perception that rabbits are a form of “poverty food” — there are plenty of stories about migrant laborers, shantytown residents and hobo-types stewing rabbits during the Great Depression.
But culinary history is rich with traditional stews that call for rabbit meat — the Germans call their version hasenpfeffer, there is Greek version called stifado, as well as a paella from Spain that calls for rabbit and snails and rice. There are French, Basque, English and Irish rabbit recipes as well, along with recipes from Mediterranean islands like Malta and Sardinia. The Chinese cook rabbits, too. And in California, for those who want to go rabbit hunting, rabbit season extends throughout the year, with no limit.
Unlike domestic rabbit meat (which tend to be considered “white meat”), wild jackrabbits have darker meat and a “gamier” flavor, closer to lamb or goat, according to some sources.
However, wild rabbits can carry tularemia — a bacterial disease sometimes known by the common name “rabbit fever,” which can spread to humans. While human cases are relatively rare, UC IPM advises against handling wild rabbits with bare hands or eating insufficiently cooked rabbit meat.
For this article, we checked with Roger Baldwin, a wildlife extension specialist with an office in the Academic Surge building, who works with the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources program. Baldwin modestly demurred when asked about rabbits recipes, saying that his expertise runs toward Integrated Pest Management, rather than matters culinary.
But Baldwin did have a few things to say about rabbits in a place like Yolo County. “They are definitely a very fecund species… and in a really wet year, you can see a population explosion.”
What about a drought year, like this one? “When you get out into rangeland settings, where there is no additional moisture, you can see the impact of drought” on the rabbit population, Baldwin said. “But it is important to realize that in an area where you have a lot of irrigated crops, you have food sources for rabbits.”
Consequently, Baldwin’s phone rings from time to time, with callers saying “rabbits are eating me out of house and home,” and asking for advice. He typically recommends some form of removal (to thin the population) in combination with some form of exclusion (to keep the rabbits from coming back). In some situations, he explained, rabbit repellents can be effective. Some repellents are based on “putrescent egg solids … the smell is kind of like sulphur, like a rotten egg,” Baldwin said.
Trapping, Baldwin said, can help control desert cottontails, but “jackrabbits don’t generally go into traps.”
In terms of exclusion, Baldwin said that rabbits can be deterred through fencing that extends 6 to 10 inches down into the ground, with a perpendicular buried “lip” bend extending a few inches away from the fenced-off area. “If the rabbits are super persistent, they could dig around it. But most are not that persistent,” Baldwin said.
For young trees, “there are tree protectors or trunk guards” that can keep rabbits from chewing. These are easy enough for a homeowner to use; but for a commercial orchard, this can be a fairly costly alternative.
Thinning groundcover can help deter desert cottontails, “but jackrabbits are less cover-dependent, and they can travel quite a ways — they have no trouble hopping into someone’s orchard and then hopping a mile away” to rest in a hiding place, Baldwin said.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8055