The Ohlone, who were living in the Bay Area when the first Europeans arrived, left only a few scraps of oral tradition to puzzle over. One is a song, or part of a song, that goes:
I dream of you,
I dream of you jumping,
Anthropologists aren’t sure what to make of this. (Imagine trying to reconstruct our culture from, say, a couple of lines from “Uncle John’s Band.”) It could have been a hunting song. The Ohlone, according to Malcolm Margolin, relied heavily on brush rabbits and black-tailed jackrabbits for clothing (200 rabbit skins made a blanket) and food. They killed them with sticks, snares, slings, and arrows. Whole villages would set the underbrush on fire or beat the bushes to chase rabbits into a net. Rabbit drives were occasions of feasting, at which a good time was had by everyone except the rabbits.
It’s possible, although not likely, that Rabbit was an Ohlone culture hero (Central California was more Coyote’s territory). The Owens Valley Paiute had a hero named Cottontail who attacked the Sun for being too hot, and Rabbit the Trickster was a prominent figure among some Southeastern and Great Lakes tribes. To the Yuchi, who lived along the Georgia-South Carolina border, he was a Prometheus figure who stole fire from its guardians. Contacts between Native Americans and African slaves in the plantation South may have grafted the rabbit character onto stories of West African tricksters like Anansi the Spider, giving rise to the tales of Br’er Rabbit.
No offense to the Br’er, or to Bugs Bunny, but I’ve always had trouble with Rabbit as a trickster. Coyote or Raven, sure. Rabbits, though, don’t seem all that astute: you never wonder what a rabbit’s thinking.
Granted, brush rabbits, the locally common species, have to be at least a little tricky to stay alive in a world full of enemies. (Brush rabbits are considered to be cottontails, a group unique to the Americas, although the undersides of their tails are brindled gray rather than cottony-white. The 15 or so cottontail species include the common eastern cottontail, introduced to parts of the West as a game animal, and the semi-aquatic swamp rabbit, which was likely the critter that went after Jimmy Carter in that notorious rabbit attack incident).
The brush rabbit’s strongest suit is concealment. Its home range centers on thick cover, like an impenetrable (to us) blackberry tangle, through which it has established a maze of tunnels and runways. Before venturing out to eat, usually at dusk, it pauses at the threshold to scan for signs of danger. When hunted, brush rabbits are reluctant to break cover. They’ll climb into the shrubbery, even into low trees, rather than bolt into the open.
They’re also good at keeping quiet. Like other rabbits, they don’t vocalize unless they’re frightened or in pain. After taking refuge in its briarpatch, a brush rabbit may thump its hind foot out of nervous tension.
But predators—coyotes, foxes, bobcats, weasels, hawks, owls, snakes, even scrub-jays—still take a significant toll. As with many small mammals, brush rabbits counter by breeding early and often. Mating season in California runs from December through May; by April, most adult females are either pregnant or nursing young, or both.
The authors of one study figured the average female brush rabbit produced 15 offspring per year. Without predation, that could amount over time to a lot of rabbits (just ask the Australians). In 1948 someone introduced brush rabbits to predator-free Ano Neuvo Island off the San Mateo County coast, best known for its elephant seal colony. The rabbits had built up population densities of 50 per acre by the 1960s, and had eaten enough of the island’s plant cover to ruin it as nesting habitat for white-crowned sparrows and other birds. Typical brush rabbit densities seem to be more like 17 per acre.
Young brush rabbits, like other cottontails and “true” rabbits, are precocial: born blind and helpless. In contrast, hares like the jackrabbit give birth to altricial young that are up and around right away. A female brush rabbit hides her young in a form, a shallow burrow lined with her own fur and covered with a fur plug. Her only contact with them during their two weeks in the nest comes in nocturnal nursing visits. (The milk of European rabbits is said to be richer than cow or goat milk, although there have been practical obstacles to a rabbit dairy industry. I don’t know of any comparable studies for cottontails.)
Egg production and delivery, of course, is beyond the talents of brush rabbits and their relatives. You have to wonder what the pre-contact Ohlone would have thought about that bit of Western mythology.