Walkers, hikers, bikers, and equestrians are happy that many of the trails that criss-cross 1,600 acres of land preserved by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy are open again.

Many are encountering the Audubon cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus audubonii) particularly in the morning and early evening hours when they are most active. This year’s heavy winter rains produced an abundance of plant life that fueled an increase in the cottontail population that we are seeing.

At the sound of footfall, this precocious native species pops its head up from amongst the purple sage,  California bush sunflowers or grasses she’s been foraging upon.

If she was born in a litter of kits during the recent  trail closures, it may well be that she has never encountered a human being before. Having reached maturity in just three months, she seems to make eye contact and carefully assess passersby.

Though curious, instinct causes her to freeze in place when she sees a human, sensing a possible predator and hoping not to be noticed. She may soon hop away in a zigzag pattern, reaching speeds of 20 miles per hour, white cotton tail flashing. 

That’s a good thing, because every bigger or faster carnivore is her predator, including red tailed hawks, coyotes, snakes, and foxes, all living in the Peninsula’s protected natural areas.

Cottontail mates breed several times a year, giving birth to their kits in burrows vacated by other mammals. Only some will survive into adulthood, and even then, their average lifespan is just two years.

A potential threat is posed fromRHD virus type 2 (RHDV2) which has begun to affect both wild and domestic rabbits in California.

The disease does not affect humans, livestock or other pets and is not related to the novel coronavirus. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife carefully monitors the progression of the disease and we can do our part by reporting any unusual sightings to them

Relish any time you get to see a Sylvilagus audubonii but don’t expect to see one on a blustery day. Wind interferes with this rabbit’s ability to hear approaching predators and so the Audubon cottontail will stay out of sight when the wind is blowing, knowing she is safer at home.

Connie Smith is the education director for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy.

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