Rabbits are as plentiful in Griffith Park as they are in most of North America. Not all rabbits across the country are created equal, though. Here in Los Angeles, along with most of southwestern United States and a large portion of Mexico, the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) prevails.
Desert cottontails are not limited to the desert. They do very well in grassland and in chaparral habitats. They can “breed like rabbits,” as the saying goes, with as many as five litters per year, with three to five bunnies in each litter. Although they have a high population growth potential, the main limiting factor for these vegans is food resources and our long and dry summers. To make life in the wild even tougher, they are preyed upon by raptors, bobcats, coyotes, and probably our omnivorous Western gray foxes.
Desert cottontails in Griffith Park often stay out-of-view in burrows during the daytime as occupants of abandoned burrows from other mammals, such as ground squirrels. Since cottontails are mainly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), you’re more likely to see them during your early morning and late evening hikes across the Park.
Or could it be a brush rabbit?
Is every rabbit you see in Griffith Park a desert cottontail? Well, that’s debatable!
There is another rabbit species that has a range hugging the coast from the tip of Baja northward to Oregon. The brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani) is typically smaller, and has a coat that’s more uniform and grayish than the desert cottontail. Their ears are a bit shorter, legs slightly shorter, and tails smaller. The underbelly is more fully white or pale compared to the desert rabbit. To make a differential identification even more difficult, brush rabbits are usually found in dense habitats, so they’re hard to photograph. Slightly more nocturnal than desert cottontails, you’d expect to see them less. And neither species has shown up regularly on our wildlife camera photos.
From personal experience, I can’t say for sure whether I’ve ever seen a brush rabbit in the Park. A few years back I photographed a suspected brush rabbit and sent it to FoGP’s scientific director, Dan Cooper. He thought it was the most likely candidate he’d ever seen in Griffith Park, and other qualified naturalists agreed. Since that time, a few scattered photos of potential brush rabbit sightings have also been submitted to iNaturalist.org. This type of identification is often inconclusive, especially when photos are fuzzy or don’t show key features needed to help identify the species.
Let’s try to resolve the question of brush rabbits in Griffith Park. If there are breeding populations of these rabbits in the Park, as there are in the Santa Monica Mountains to our west, the next question is whether these populations can persist in this Park — or other large expanses of habitat — as fragmented and isolated as they are.
Keep an eye out for rabbits in Griffith Park. Send us your photos or submit them to iNaturalist. Be a part of science!
Photo, left: Walter Siegmund, Wikipedia, right: Kathryn Louyse