The average lifespan of a desert cottontail rabbit is two years. It is not a great distinction, becoming an average rabbit. But it isn’t easy either, staying alive for 730 days.
He didn’t count the days, but their rhythm ruled him. Each dawn he ventured from a shallow dugout in the brush and sniffed the air for the scent of those near, those who had come in the night but were no longer close, the scent of the wind itself telling where his own scent would be carried. Around him, still concealed in shadow, others emerged. They surveyed the horizon, the sky, the close grass, and moved in ones and twos out of vague shadow into vague light, stepping here but not there, moving now but not then, eating this grass but not that grass, head and tail kept low. Young rabbits watched old rabbits, who inadvertently passed on the skills that would help them become average rabbits, and they would pass them on to others if they got the chance. Average rabbits are skilled at survival above all else, with little time for behavior that did not add days to their lives.
The sun rose, the wind blew. He fed, which for a rabbit involves searching, and watching, always watching, and finally grazing in his preferred spot between mesquite bush and the prickly pear, although he didn’t call them that. Long step, short hop, his trembling nose sampled the grassy aromas just out of reach. He had distinct preferences and would often clear the space of one kind of grass, then make a second pass for the less desirable varieties. He enjoyed bark too. Even the toughest piece was a plaything for his teeth, and he had spent many hours under one helpless bush or another, mercilessly denuding its lower branches. Cactus was nice, but he felt exposed when eating it. Ideally, he’d find a small piece he could take with him to a safe place. The moisture from all these things was sufficient, but an actual drink was always welcome. Puddles after the rain were refreshing but dangerous and didn’t last long. Dewdrops were rewards for the earliest risers and widest wanderers.
He chewed and then paused, again and again, sampling his surroundings with ears tuned for centuries to the slightest sound and eyes designed to scan for movement in almost all directions. He chose another bite. Occasionally he sat straight up on his haunches, using the higher vantage point to keep watch while the others grazed. It amazed him, each time, how small a thing a rabbit is under a big sky. He did not entirely dislike the feeling. Plus, he was able to warn others, by thumping a back foot, if he perceived a threat. It seemed like the least he could do.
Day came on full and they returned to the spaces where they felt safe, as safe as a rabbit could feel, in sleep, in thought, or in distress. He dozed contentedly to the howl of the wind until just before dusk. He was hungry. He crept out and sat for a moment, eyes blinking against the light and the sand. Others nearby were grazing with ears down, their grayish-brown fur blending into the dust-filled atmosphere and the early evening shadows. Invisibility was essential to small creatures reluctant to advertise themselves as prey. Equally important to the illusion was stillness. At the slightest threat, or the threat of a threat, he could remain motionless, breathing the barest breath, for many minutes, although his skin was too thin to hide the hammering of his rabbit heart.
Fear followed him, although he didn’t call it that. Predators simply came from all directions. From in front, from behind, from above, they patrolled the scrub and rock like casual, confident sentries. A rabbit’s best option was to remain hidden. But when that failed, he ran. Like a rabbit. Zig, then zag, exploding from one small space to the next, a few lightning strides away, across the sand through the scrub, his white tail bright against the desert floor and deliberately highlighting his back-and-forth flight until he finds grass enough to suddenly freeze, tuck white tail low, and, to a predator who tracks movement, vanish completely. It didn’t always work. He’d seen rabbits, mistakenly caught in the open, zig and zag to no avail. Claws dig, jaws snap. Sometimes, without warning, the rabbit next to him was overtaken by a feathered shadow and scooped up into the dusk. And sometimes a rabbit he knew just wasn’t there anymore.
So he knew about death, although he didn’t call it that. What’s evident to rabbits is that there are exactly three ways to die: get eaten, get hurt (and then get eaten), or get sick (and then get eaten). He had seen all of these things, although it had taken some time for him to work out that the same thing was happening each time.
Mating was similarly mysterious. He did not ask to be consumed by an act that caused so much turmoil. Still, he did his best. He knew how to fight, if he had to. He didn’t like it, and no rabbit really does. For all the scratching and kicking, there was seldom a clear winner. The males were left bloodied and full of rabbit rage, most nursing the suspicion that the females were doing the choosing anyway. But he had chosen (or had been chosen) more than once and so he knew females. The mating urge was inexplicable and dangerous. He himself had followed the scent too far, crossed fields too wide in moonlight too bright, to reach the bearer, the heat, the release. But the urge came and went, and new rabbits emerged from nests, according to the schedule imposed upon them.
He was focused on a patch of grass near the deer path when the air changed. Even the wind didn’t disguise the slight variation and without hesitating, he took quick shelter under a bush. A budding blackbrush, he observed, although he didn’t call it that. And when he foolishly darted across the path to another, bigger bush, he saw it. He huddled, frozen, a tall shape reflected in his soft dark eye.
He didn’t know this. He knew a lot of things. But he didn’t know this. He might have figured something out, such as a rabbit could, given a little time. Instead he watched the figure stoop and then rise again. A brief pause and no more time at all. 730 days, give or take a few. He was an average rabbit. And in the end, he became a meal for a coyote on a lucky streak, although she didn’t call it that. But the requisite 4,562 days were behind her, her belly was full, and she felt better than average that night.