The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, October 06, 2002

A Bizarre Encounter Between a Cottontail and a Snake
Ro Wauer, October 6, 2002, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Now everyone knows that cottontails are gentle creatures that are prey for a wide variety of predators. Those predators can range from large mammals, such as foxes and coyotes, to a variety of avian raptors, such as large owls and hawks, and even large snakes. Everyone also knows that cottontails are rabbits that reproduce in large numbers, making them favorite prey, and also that they are commonplace along our roadsides and in our pastures. They often live in close association with humans, so long as there is nearby cover.

My yard that backs up to a fairly large semi-wild, brushy area seems always to be inhabited by a pair of cottontails. They most often appear at dusk, suddenly hopping into view to feed on new grasses. They also spend an amazing amount of time chasing one another about; frolicking would be the best term for that behavior. And occasionally one will even appear in the middle of the day to either feed or to dust-bathe in one of the small bare spots in the backyard. Over the years, Betty and I have thoroughly enjoyed cottontail-watching.

But the other evening we experienced a totally different occurrence that can only be described as bazaar. A single cottontail suddenly appeared in the front yard, about 50 to 60 feet away from where we were sitting watching the Texas football game. The grass in the yard was fairly tall; it needed cutting. As always, the cottontail was cautious, looking about with ears erect, listening for danger. Our first indication that something was amiss was when it suddenly ran in a tight circle. But instead of continuing a playful run, it appeared to have circled a snake. For the snake suddenly struck at the cottontail, that jumped high in the air and ran a short distance away. But instead of running off, as we assumed it would, it returned, apparently to get a better look at the snake. The snake struck again, and this time the cottontail actually kicked the snake with its hind legs.

The snake, estimated to be about four feet in length, dropped back into the grass, disappearing from view. But then it raised it head again and approached the cottontail. It struck again, and for a second it actually had a grip on the cottontail. But the cottontail jumped away, and again did not run off. It stopped a few feet away, looked back at the snake, and then actually approached the snake again. The snake was able to strike again, and again without discouraging the cottontail that simply moved away a very short distance. And then the cottontail approached the snake, and even jumped about as if playing with the snake. At times it appeared that the cottontail was the aggressor.

At one point the cottontail moved away several feet and seemed to loose interest in the snake; it actually stretched and cleaned its paws. But then it again approached the snake. The snake, that I believe was a Texas rat snake, was hidden in the grass much of the time, but it seemed unsure of the situation. Apparently it realized that the cottontail was too large to capture, but also that it did not pose a threat. So the situation appeared to be a standoff. Both individuals remained within a few feet of one another, going about whatever business that had first brought them together. This interaction, which we watched through binoculars after the first few seconds, lasted 12 to 15 minutes.

As darkness took command of the day, the cottontail stayed in place, feeding on the grasses. The snake apparently crawled away. The tall grass hid it from view. The following morning, when I went out to fetch the newspaper in the driveway, the cottontail, apparently the same individual from the night before, was still present. The snake was not.

Such observations cannot help but counter earlier assumptions of what is normal in nature. I had never before witnessed such an encounter. Although we human beings usually interpret such interactions on an anthropological perspective, we have much yet to learn. I can't help but wonder how often wild creatures do encounter one another without either one suffering the consequences.


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