Crawlies with Cri: Mountain cottontail

Mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii)

by Christi Solo

Here comes mountain cottontail! Hopping down the bunny trail!
If the Easter Bunny visited you during the weekend, you’d better learn about their western counterpart, so meet the mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii).
The mountain cottontail could just as easily be called the “western cottontail” because it only lives in the western United States, straying a teeny bit into Canada.
Here in Oregon mountain cottontails are mostly found east of the Cascades, but there is a population in Josephine County.
Mountain cottontails can be tricky to see for a few reasons. First, they are crepuscular, meaning they are mostly active at dawn and dusk. They stay well hidden when feeding, which makes sense because all sorts of carnivores have mountain cottontail on their menu.
When startled cottontails will freeze in place with their ears up so they can listen for danger. They may stay frozen for up to 15 minutes. Holding very still for a very long time is useful when your predators hunt by sight.
If pulling a freeze frame doesn’t work, cottontail can sprint up to 18 miles per hour. They usually run in a semi-circular pattern to throw off whoever is tracking them.
This is also why mountain cottontails sport such perfect camouflage coloration, blending in with the grasses and shrubs they live in/around and which make up the bulk of their diet.
Favored grasses include wheatgrasses, needle-and-thread, Indian ricegrass, cheatgrass brome, bluegrasses, and bottlebrush squirreltail. If grasses are sparse, mountain cottontails will opt for shrubs next such as sagebrush, rabbitbrush and saltbrushes.
Cottontails are active all year. When food becomes lean in winter they’ll eat more woody plant parts including bark and twigs.
We’re lucky the Easter Bunny is willing to give us tasty treats and doesn’t keep them all, because boy do cottontails spend a lot of time eating! Over 50% of the time they spend awake, they spend chowing down. It takes a lot of fuel to keep them ever ready to sprint off at 18 MPH.
Mountain cottontails are also very good at that thing all rabbits are very good at – having baby rabbits. Depending on their location, they will have between two to five litters per year with an average of five kits per litter. Such is life at the bottom of the food chain; you must reproduce a lot.
Because coyotes, bobcats, lynxes, mountain lions, foxes, martens, crows, hawks, owls and rattlesnakes all predate cottontails their life expectancy is only two years in the wild. They can live up to eight years in captivity.
Another reason mountain cottontails can be hard to spot in the wild is they are solitary bunnies. They will congregate if there’s a particularly awesome feeding patch, but generally don’t like to hang out together.
Cottontails do communicate, mostly to warn each other about potential predators. They do so by thumping the ground with their strong hind legs.
Cottontail kits are independent at just one month old, so even mother and baby bunnies split up quickly. Better for mountain cottontails to be spread out than form a big colony that quickly becomes a bobcat buffet.
Even though mountain cottontails can be tricky to see, they’re so cute they are worth looking for, so keep an eye out if you’re east of the Cascades this spring and summer.
Final fun fact: You can also look up to spot a mountain cottontail; they’re known to climb juniper trees for food and shade.