Published on February 7, 2013 by Amy
Nearctic: Lepus californicus ranges over all of the southwestern United States into Mexico, east to Missouri and north into Washington, Idaho, Colorado and Nebraska, west to California and Baja California
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Our largest hare, black-tailed jackrabbits measure about 47-63 cm from nose to rump, the tail is between 50-112 mm and the ears are 10-13 cm long. As it is a true hare, the black-tailed jackrabbit is lankier and leaner than a rabbit, has longer ears and legs, and its leverets are born fully-furred and open-eyed. The black-tailed jackrabbit posses a characteristic black stripe down the center of its back, a black rump patch, and its tail is black dorsally. Both sexes look alike, but the female is the larger of the two sexes.
Grasses and herbaceous matter are the preferred foods of Lepus californicus, but twigs and young bark of woody plants are the staple food when other plants are not available. Sagebrush and cacti are also taken. Jackrabbits eat constantly and consume large quantities relative to their size; 15 jackrabbits eat as much as a large grazing cattle in one day. Blacktails do not require much water and obtain nearly all the water they need from the plant material they ingest.
Breeding season for Lepus californicus extends from December through September in Arizona and from late January to August in California and Kansas. Females produce 3 or 4 litters annually with 1-6 leverets (generally 3 or 4) after a 41-47 day gestation period. The young are precocial; females only nurse their offspring for 2-3 days and are not seen with their young after that time. Lifespan in captivity is 5-6 years, but rabbits in the wild often die much sooner due to predation, disease or problems associated with overpopulation.
As with all hares, blacktails rely on speed and camouflage (along with the characteristic “freeze” behavior) for their defense. When flushed from cover, a blacktail can spring 20 feet at a bound and reach top speeds of 30-35 mph over a zigzag course. Black-tailed jackrabbits do not generally occupy burrows: rather, they dig shallow depressions in the earth in which to lay. Black-tailed jackrabbits are mainly unsociable but are driven to common food sources in periods of drought. They are inactive during the hot afternoon hours and are mainly nocturnal, resting under bushes by day. Home ranges in California average 20ha (dependent upon population density), with females having larger ranges than males.
Black-tailed jackrabbits inhabit desert scrubland, prairies, farmlands and dunes and moors. They favor arid regions and areas of short grass rangeland from sea level to about 3,800 m. Many different vegetation types are used, including sagebrush-creosote bush, mesquite-snakeweed and juniper-big sagebrush. They also frequent the agricultural land in California where they are a major pest of crops and fruit trees.
As with many other Lepus species, L. californicus has been widely used as food for humans, especially by Native Americans. Their fur is not durable nor valuable, but it has been extensively used in the manufacture of felt and as trimming and lining for garments and gloves.
Due to the removal by European settlers of its natural predators such as the coyote and kit fox, the black-tailed jackrabbit has undergone incredible population explosions in which crops, orchards and rangelands have suffered. They do considerable damage to farms, forest plantations and young trees.
Populations of black-tailed jackrabbits are quite high despite ranchers’ and farmers’ attempts at culling their populations through herding and slaughter. Large herding attempts have netted as much as 20,000 hares at a time, and population densities often reach 100 animals per square km. As with many hares, Lepus californicus populations undergo drastic fluctuations in regular cycles every 9-10 years. Populations increase to great abundance and then suddenly decline for unknown reasons. In some years more then 90 per cent of the western populations die from tularemia, which may or may not be related to the population cycling phenomenon. Because of their incredible fecundity, blacktail numbers quickly recover, however.