When I first came to the high desert I fell in love with the western desert cottontail rabbits that appeared at dawn and dusk as well as at odd times during the day to feast upon the sunflower seed I scattered for them on the ground. At first these animals were very shy, disappearing into the nearest bush the moment I spoke to one, even from inside the house. Soon however their behavior began to shift. Instead of hopping away they began to make eye contact with me through the windows, their beautiful brown eyes shining like marbles, their ears and whiskers twitching as they nibbled the seed while keeping one sharp eye on me! When I met one in the yard, I surprised him/her by calling out “hi bunny” as I walked my dogs. They would freeze when I spoke and fasten their glistening doe-like eyes on me in what seemed like curiosity. It occurred to me then that they weren’t used to humans talking to them. I began earnest conversations with these rabbits whenever I met one letting them know that I wanted nothing more than to be a good friend… By early fall they allowed me to get within a couple of feet of them. I longed to touch the silky gray fur of just one rabbit…
One day I was walking around outside looking for lizards to photograph and decided to sit on the ground. The snakeweed was in bloom and although the seriously disturbed earth around the house was bare, the bright yellow clumps thrived in the surrounding hills. It was hot in the late September sun, but I was stalking lizards and had no intention of allowing heat to get in my way. Finding a bare spot I sat down to wait.
My breathing slowed as I slipped into a light trance… A cottontail approached me; I kept still, breathing deeply. The rabbit stopped just in front of me its whiskers twitching. Now I was on high alert having snapped out of the relaxed state I had been in. Ever so slowly I reached out to touch the soft fur coat, and the rabbit didn’t move when I gently ran my hand over its back. Amazed and joyful I repeated this gesture three times. When the rabbit hopped away his/her tail bobbing, I stopped holding my breath and relived the experience still feeling the silky fur…Did this really happen? My rational mind was on overload even as my body relaxed again. Of course it did, my body responded feeling thick fur. “Of course it did!” I heard myself replying in response to my own query. This rabbit had responded to my longing telepathically by coming and allowing itself to be stroked. Immense gratitude flooded me. Our relationship had become reciprocal.
This incident marked a dramatic shift in the cottontails’ behavior. Now whenever I was outside alone rabbits appeared like magic. I also discovered that although many rabbits and hares visited me that there were three that lived right here by the house. I could tell them apart by their size, one was so much smaller than the other two who looked like twins. I also identified the difference between the twins by the way they twitched their whiskers, by the subtle differences in the gray brown of their coats, the way each held its ears, even the shapes of their cottony tails were different. I don’t know if they are related but all three are great friends. I am guessing that they are all female rabbits since they are sharing the same territory (males need a much larger space). The three spend a lot of time chasing each other in what seems to be some sort of game. They reverse directions without warning, and the chased becomes the chaser! They also leap up into the air without apparent reason their long back legs propelling them skywards with ease. And sometimes they nuzzle each others noses.
Now that winter is almost upon us, my three rabbits spend their days hiding out under the boughs of one particular juniper tree, the one by my back door. Even when it’s frigid they come out for a brief visit while I am bringing wood into the house. I watch them nibbling the ripe berries and licking the ice from the copper water pan that I refill each morning for the birds. Two of them have almost demolished the two prickly pear cactus plants that are close to the house. Even though I watch them eat through binoculars I can’t see how they manage to rid the pads of their sharp thorns before taking their first bite. I know from previous experience that rabbit incisors do make a clean cut. I leave spinach leaves on the ground for them, and the occasional carrot. But it’s the sunflower seeds they love the most, probably because the latter are high in both protein and fat.
I have become so attached to my little cottontails that I am already imagining how much I will miss these particular rabbits when I leave. They have become members of my family, the only difference being that they live outside while Lily B, my dove, my two Chihuahuas and I live indoors. Every evening we repeat the same ritual with me standing at the window, the dogs in their chair and Lily B peering down from his high swinging perch. We all watch the rabbits and scaled quail devouring their seed just after the sun has slipped below the horizon. The littlest rabbit is usually the last one to leave just as darkness spreads her cloak of cracked stars over the high desert scrub and sand.
If I am correct in my assessment that these rabbits are all females, I expect I might have little ones in the spring, since they mate quite early and have about 2- 6 young, born naked and blind. The literature says that few make it to adulthood, so nature compensates for these losses by allowing the rabbits to have many litters a year helping keeping the population relatively stable.
There is a wonderful story about the goddess of spring riding in a chariot led by six rabbits holding lighted candles. Both the goddess Eostre and her familiars, the rabbits, celebrate the new dawn, renewal and fertility returning to the Earth after a long winter’s sleep…During these dark and sometimes frigid days of winter I am reminded that each season has its blessings and that with the winter solstice approaching tomorrow (in the northern hemisphere) the sun will soon be climbing higher in the sky bringing warmth and longer days and before we know it, the wheel of the year will be turning again.