Three species of cottontail occur in Arizona: the mountain cottontail, eastern cottontail, and desert cottontail. The smallest of these weighing 22-30 ounces is the relatively short-eared mountain cottontail. This species is largely restricted to elevations above 7,500 feet from the Mogollon Rim northward. The generally larger eastern cottontail (28-52 ounces) is found in the mountains of southeastern and central Arizona where it occupies many of the same habitats as the Coues white-tailed deer. The most abundant and important rabbit by far, however, is the desert cottontail (26.5-44 ounces), which is found in every county in the state up to elevations exceeding 7,000 feet.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their relative abundance, little is known about the life histories of Arizona cottontails. Only one study has been conducted on desert cottontails, and none on eastern and mountain cottontails. Although we know that cottontail rabbits may vary from amazing abundance in one year to relative scarcity the next, we have little insight as to what factors other than winter rainfall control their numbers. Cottontail rabbits are very prolific and those feeding on green growth may have up to five litters of two to four young a year. Although the desert cottontail is able to breed throughout the year, most young rabbits are produced in spring when the new growth of plants is most available. At other times of the year, selected foods include twigs, newly emerging grasses, weeds, and even cacti. Cottontails rarely drink, and free water does not appear to be a requirement for either their survival or reproduction.
Hunting and Trapping History
The cottontail hunting season has always been year-long in Arizona, and the bag limit has been 10 rabbits per day for many years. Although some hunters consider cottontail hunting with a .22 rifle as their primary sport, cottontails traditionally have been taken in Arizona in conjunction with dove and quail hunting. As a consequence of the wide fluctuations in both cottontail and quail numbers, the annual take of cottontails is highly erratic, ranging from a reported high of about 850,000 rabbits in 1979 to less than 45,000 in 2002.