A black-tailed jackrabbit sits next to a foothill palo verde along the Apache Wash Loop Trail in Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

On the trails my glimpses of jackrabbits are normally rather brief but this one I got to watch for a while as it casually moved through the desert, feeding as it went. It was aware of me and the others on the trail, mostly mountain bikers and hikers (none of whom stopped to watch). Our time together came to an end when the jackrabbit took flight as a loud plane passed overhead.


A black-tailed jackrabbit is visible through the desert scrub at the trailhead to Brown's Ranch in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I am amazed how effortlessly and silently mammals move through their home while I stumble down the trail. The jackrabbits seem like spirits floating through the desert, I often first notice the black tips of their tall ears moving while the rabbit itself is blocked from sight by the many plants of the scrubland. This lovely creature I found not on the trails but at the trailhead of Brown’s Ranch, we shared a quiet moment before sunup.

The rabbit you are most likely to see at the trailhead, and on the trail, is the desert cottontail (below). They too move silently through the desert but are so much smaller than the jackrabbits that you see them when you see them, there are no tall black tips dancing in the early light to catch your eye. Like all the mammals your best bet to see them is to arrive early, here also at the trailhead but just as the sun began peeking through to send one of us onto the trails and one to bed.

Walking in the Sonoran Desert at sunrise, seeing the desert both wake up and go to sleep, is a joy and a treasure even to this lifelong night owl.

A desert cottontail looks straight at me as it is partially lit by the rising sun at the trailhead to Brown's Ranch in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The Desert Giraffe

The Desert Giraffe

The sun hadn’t yet risen above the mountains when I met this hungry black-tailed jackrabbit. They share their habitat with the more numerous desert cottontail but the larger jackrabbit with its long legs can get to food that the cottontail cannot, reminding me of a giraffe using its long neck to eat leaves high in the trees. I hadn’t seen a rabbit spend so much time up on its hind legs before, this desert is full of surprises.

Long Legs

Both the black-tailed jackrabbit and the desert cottontail are named for their tails. The cottontail has a round white tail like a giant cotton ball, while the black-tailed jackrabbit has a tail that is black on top, as you can see as it sits up off the ground as it eats leaves it has pulled from the tree. It’s hard to tell from these pictures but the tops of their ears have black tips as well. Apparently they can run quite fast and jump in long leaps but the three times I’ve seen them they’ve casually hopped through the desert.

The Black Tail

Home in the Desert

A black-tailed jackrabbit sits in the Sonoran Desert in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As we make our home in the desert it is painfully clear to me as I hike, suited up with bottles of water and protective sun gear, that I will never be at home in the desert, not like they are, the animals who live here. This black-tailed jackrabbit can leap 5 or 10 feet at a time and reach speeds up to 40 mph, but on this morning it casually sauntered off into its desert home.