Desert cottontail

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Desert cottontail

The desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii), also known as Audubon’s cottontail, is a New World cottontail rabbit, and a member of the family Leporidae. Unlike the European rabbit, they do not form social burrow systems, but compared with some other leporids, they are extremely tolerant of other individuals in their vicinity.

Cottontails give birth to their kits in burrows vacated by other mammals. They sometimes cool off, or take refuge in scratched out shallow created depressions of their own making, using their front paws like a back hoe. They are not usually active in the middle of the day, but can be observed foraging in the early morning, and early evening. 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.

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Lagomorpha
  • Family: Leporidae
  • Genus: Sylvilagus
  • Species: S. audubonii
  • Binomial name: Sylvilagus audubonii


The desert cottontail is most active in the early morning and in the evening. It spends the hottest part of the day under cover. Sometimes the desert cottontail climbs sloping trees and tree stumps to sit and keep watch for predators and other dangers.

The desert cottontail does not build its own den, although it may scratch a depression under a bush or other vegetation. Sometimes it will rest in the burrow of another animal. The desert cottontail can also swim and runs at speeds of up to fifteen miles an hour.


This species is found mainly in arid regions, giving it the common name desert cottontail. It can also inhabit woodlands and grasslands, and it ranges in elevation from sea level up to about 6,000 feet. When not feeding, individuals live in heavy brush, brambles, or holes in order to hide from their many predators.


Desert Cottontails mainly feed on a variety of grasses, but they will also eat fruit, vegetables and nuts.

Diet and feeding

The desert cottontail mainly eats forbs and grass, which constitutes 80% of its diet. It also eats many other plants, even including cacti. They also feed on the leaves and peas of mesquite, barks, fallen fruit, the juicy pads of prickly pear and twigs of shrubs. It rarely needs to drink, getting its water mostly from the plants it eats or from dew.

Due to seasonality and changes in moisture conditions of their habitat, cottontails adjust their diets based on many influential factors that impact the seasonal changes of vegetation. Like most lagomorphs, it is coprophagic, re-ingesting and chewing its own feces to extract the nutrients as effectively as possible.

The desert cottontail, like all cottontails, 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 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.

Food Habits

These rabbits eat almost exclusively grass (of various species). They will also eat some fruits, nuts, and vegetables when available.


Desert Cottontails have a body length between 33 and 43 cms (13 – 17 inches) and they weigh up to 1.5 kgs (3.25 lbs). They are light grey/brown in colour with a pale coloured underside. Their ears are 8 – 10 cms (3 – 4 inches) in length and their tail is rounded and coloured white underneath.

Desert Cottontails can run at speeds of 24 km/hr (15 mph) and they are more agile than other cottontails, as they are able to swim and climb trees and piles of brush.

Desert cottontail images

Image by VIT DUCKEN from Pixabay

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