Brush Rabbits in San Francisco?


Yes, I’ve run into a number of bunnies recently in our San Francisco parks — in the same parks where coyotes also live! Because of this, I decided to brush-up on them.  :))

The western brush rabbit, also called riparian brush rabbit is a species of small cottontail which lives in the western coastal areas of the US, including San Francisco. Apparently it is endangered. Ten years ago I had incredible difficulty finding brush rabbits here in the city: I was told that they were a rare sight except at Fort Funston, though I did find a couple on Twin Peaks. That was right before they totally disappeared from Twin Peaks as it was converted to a high-maintenance “native” plant museum landscape of grasslands and chaparral. :((

Now, I’m seeing these bunnies again in a number of our parks — not in the restored “native” chaparral areas or grasslands of the city, but rather on the edges of dense brush, willow groves, blackberry thickets and dead wood piles, where they can quickly scurry to safety.  They eat grasses, shoots and especially green clover and berries.

We all know that rabbits dig holes because of Alice who fell down one into Wonderland. However, cottontails, unlike other rabbits, don’t dig “rabbit holes” or burrows as do other rabbits, but rather use the burrows of other animals, or just hide in the dense brush areas through which they create extensive runways. All other rabbits live underground in burrows or warrens.

They are crepuscular, mostly active at dawn and dusk, as well as nocturnally active. Their main predators here in the city are coyotes, foxes, raccoons, snakes, hawks, and owls, . . . and misguided human activity also hurts them. The protection they use to escape predators lies in their ability to remain absolutely still in bushy areas, or to hop in a fast zig-zag pattern in open fields. They can also deliver powerful kicks with their hind legs and their strong teeth allow them to bite in order to escape a struggle.

Rabbits don’t have pads on their feet — they are furry all over! They are distinguished from rodent species by their two sets of incisors, one in back of the other, whereas rodents only have one set. Male rabbits are called bucks, females are does, youngsters are called kits or kittens, and a group of rabbits is called a colony or nest. The brush rabbits are only about a foot long and weigh between one and one-and-a-half pounds.

Brush rabbits produce two to five litters a year — the average being three — and a litter size is usually about 3 kits. That doesn’t seem like so many to me, and I wondered where the phrase “multiplying like rabbits” really came from, but with a short gestation period of only 22 days, they actually can reproduce quickly. It turns out that it is *domestic* rabbits who really can overpopulate: they potentially can have 1-14 kits per litter and potentially 12 litters a year. Yikes! [See: http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/scary.html]

Wikipedia says that,  “It is estimated the home range of the Brush Rabbit averages just under 1-acre for males and just under .5 acre for females. The shape of these home ranges are usually circular but depending on the vegetation can be different in size and shape. Range use probably is not circular in shape or uniform, but rather consists of a series of runways that directly connect high use areas within brush habitat.”

Several rabbits have been observed to feed in the same area simultaneously, but they maintained distances from each other of one to 24 feet before aggressive chases occurred. Females tend to not overlap in their ranges, while males do, which may indicate that females are territorial. Groups of brush rabbits may serve social purposes, such as predator detection.

Cottontail rabbits are almost completely mute animals. They communicate with each other by thumping with their back feet against the ground, and probably visually. Even so, they can scream and screech quite loudly if caught by a predator.

Yes, as I mentioned above, *humans*, in their quest to be helpful, are actually harmful to them. Please let’s leave their habitat alone — they need the dense brush they live in for natural protection! Also, please don’t try to “save” these critters by trapping them and taking them home. They are meant to be wild and they are happiest in their natural environment, living their lives without human interference. The rule of nature is “eat or/and be eaten”: it’s a harsh one, but I think they, as all animals, would choose a short natural and free life over a long life in captivity: Life quality over longevity. I would.

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