Jack rabbits have returned to the outer coast. Until about five years ago, they lived in high densities in the dunes and chaparral both north and south of Abbott’s Lagoon. At times, regular highways of trails snaked around the sand dunes, and I’d often flush one out from under lupines. But the drought meant the loss of some of their favorite dune succulents, and they disappeared. There has not been a track to be found for years.
Soon after the jack rabbits left, coyotes discontinued their hunting and territorial marking in the Abbott’s basin, perhaps offering a clue about their diet. Then, in a cascading sequence, several other animal patterns shifted.
The cottontails, our little brush rabbits that forage at the edge of trails, began expanding their territory. In the rainy years of 2009 and 2010, the bunnies boomed like no one’s business. On a dawn walk to the beach, trails would be lined with the rabbits; in the wettest times, I even saw them scattered across roads. But a confluence of overpopulation and the sudden, drastic drought resulted in a comparative disappearance of brush rabbits.
It took the jack rabbits a little longer to be affected. In the summer of 2013, after a very dry spring, the large stands of sand verbena they regularly forage were withering. The dry fall and winter left the hills brown at Christmas for the first time in my life. Out at the dunes, the verbena and many other jack rabbit favorites failed to thrive. The jacks and their highways disappeared, followed by the coyotes.
For the last three years, gone were the undulating and rhythmically loping trails of paired coyotes in March. Gone were the magical courting circles of tracks in mid-January. Gone were the messy track scenes of midnight jack rabbit courting parties. It got pretty quiet out there, if it were not for a few other patterns shifting.
Suddenly, in the empty basin, a rare, non-native red fox appeared and took up residence. Though I’ve never seen it, its tracks were unmistakable. It moved in entirely different trotting and loping patterns from a coyote, and rarely shifted into the side-trot so common and unique to a coyote in its established
territory. It also engaged in different territorial behavior, continuously marking, almost geometrically, the four corners of the basin, leaving vigorous scratch marks and urine sprays. It moved in fast-paced tours of the large chaparral clusters covering the hillsides, circling downwind of each clump, taking a long olfactory assessment of the rabbit and mouse populations before moving on.
This new pattern was accompanied by a slow recovery of the brush rabbit population, which spread into new areas the jacks may have formerly dominated.
So go the cycles in the natural world, but I missed those jack rabbits. How bemusing it was to see them gathered for their shindigs in the middle of the night. With their blazing speed—30-mph dashes and 20-foot leaps—and expert hearing, they just don’t seem very worried about intruders. And while the cottontail thinks in terms of square feet, the jack rabbit thinks in terms of miles. A courting chase between jack rabbits can cover several miles over the course of a night.
When I’d drive by one of their get-togethers in the fields along my road just before dawn, I’d stop the car and watch for a while, leaving the headlights on. It was as if they were performing a choreographed dance; transfixed by their steps, they completely ignored me. One would move a few steps and stand up on its hind legs, then another would move a few steps and stop. Then another. One at a time, one after another, they’d stop, holding their long ears still and erect, then take a couple more steps, then stop again.
Maybe it’s the professorial, eye-glass look of their white eye-ring, or their insistence that their party not be interrupted. Maybe it’s just their hormones at play in these courtship rituals, like randy bucks in the fall. But native people sensed their other-worldliness and revered them as wise tricksters.
In the agricultural takeover of the West around 1900, jack rabbits were killed by the millions in relentless hunting drives. They were largely extirpated in our northwestern wheat country, but, like their coyote adversary, they survived here, and we are lucky they did.
I have missed them out on the coast, where we regularly found the traces of their midnight parties in the dune basins. Yet I recently found the evidence of one of these “boxing matches” they hold in courting time (hence the phrase “Mad as a March hare”). The signs of the battle were there to see: heavy scratches and long, sharp digs made by the jack rabbits’ rear feet as they rose up to fight, with the females sitting around the edges, watching. And, presumably, choosing.
Richard Vacha, a Point Reyes Station resident, leads a free tracking club on the last Sunday of every month. For information, visit pointreyestrackingschool.com.