Lately I’ve been observing numerous eastern cottontails, large and small, in the yard at dawn and dusk. It’s that time of year when our native rabbits are reproducing like, well, rabbits – big bunnies, little bunnies, bunnies everywhere in open spaces and along forest edges. Turning into the driveway one day, I had to stop slam on the breaks because two tiny young cottontails were cavorting there.
The eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is the most common rabbit species in Virginia and is found throughout most of eastern United States. While rabbits are often thought of as rodents, they are actually in an entirely different taxonomic order, Lagomorpha, which includes two families, Ochotonidae (pikas) and Leporidae (hares and rabbits). The eastern cottontail belongs to the latter.
Adult cottontails are about 16 inches long and weigh in at 2 to 3 pounds. Their soft fur is a speckled brown-gray above, reddish-brown around the neck and shoulders and lighter around the nose and on the undersides. Their name comes from their fluffy white tails, most visible when fleeing. Although they may look cute and cuddly, adult rabbits are very territorial. Bucks will engage in fierce battles with competing males, biting and kicking their opponents.
Feeding mostly at dusk and dawn, cottontails are not picky about what they eat. They consume more than a hundred different plant species, including flowers, buds, seeds, fruits and grasses, clover and other broad-leafed plants in the warm season and bark, stems, leaves, twigs and branches in the winter. Lawns are a big attractant, since regular mowing making tender young shoots continually available throughout the growing season. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), during the warm season cottontails can be a nuisance to gardeners, consuming cabbage and other summer crops and, in the cold season, are “particularly fond” of sumac bark and also consume waste grain left in the field.
Despite the portrayal of rabbits in myriad movies and books as living down holes, often together in large warrens, these are based on Old World species. Our native cottontails live solitary lives above ground, sheltering in briar patches, brushy areas and other tangles of undergrowth along forest edges and in meadows that offer safety from predators. (Think Br’er Rabbit, not Peter Rabbit.) I’ve often seen rabbits fleeing into tunnels in the berry patches along my driveway.
A cottontail doe (female) can have three to seven litters of three to sixes a year, meaning one buck (male) and one doe could multiply into 25 rabbits in less than a year. When she’s ready to give birth, the female digs a shallow hole (5 to 7 inches wide and about seven inches deep) and creates a nest of grasses lined with fur. This exposed location can have disastrous consequences when it’s in a yard or a hayfield that is mown regularly or where people are likely to walk and crush the young underfoot. If a nest is disturbed, the mother will likely still try to get back to her young, so the best thing to do if you come upon a nest is to leave it alone.
Cottontails are indeed prolific, but as the “protein pill of the animal kingdom” (as VDGIF puts it), such fecundity is necessary to keep ahead of their many predators. Here in Virginia, raptors (hawks and owls), canids (dogs and foxes), weasels, bobcats, raccoons, domestic cats and humans – to name a few – prey on the adults, and an even wider group of predators, including crows and snakes, will prey on the young.
Between predators, flooding and other threats, cottontail babies have a tough time surviving. VDGIF points to studies that show that young cottontails make up 50 percent of both crow and fox diets and have about a 50 percent mortality rate in the nest. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) reports that, on average, only 15 percent of the young will survive their first year.
Cottontail populations are also kept in check by Tularemia, a disease caused by a bacterium. The disease is usually fatal to rabbits and can also infect humans and other species. Even if they survive their infancy, cottontails don’t have a lot of years to look forward to – only an average of three in the wild (eight in captivity).
According to the Connecticut DEEP, cottontails make a variety of sounds, including thumping the ground with their hind feet, probably as a means of communication. (Remember Thumper in the Disney movie “Bambi?”) They often make low purring, growling or grunting sounds when playing or breeding. If captured by a predator, they may emit a loud, shrill scream that, on a quiet night, can arouse the deepest sleeper, something to which I can personally attest.
Rather than fleeing predators as soon as they see them, cottontails are more likely to freeze, hoping not to attract attention, since most of their predators key in on movement, as my dog, a Belgian Tervuren, does. Bred to spot livestock predators mostly by their movement, she’ll walk right past “frozen” rabbits if she doesn’t pick up their scent. If a rabbit takes off, she bursts into action, which at her age mostly involves a short, stiff sprint and a lot of fierce barking. Similarly, I’ve often observed cottontails freeze when they saw me watching them and, as soon as my gaze shifted, disappear into adjacent underbrush. When pursued, they run in a zig-zag pattern and can clock in at 18 miles per hour.
While cottontails have evolved strategies to survive an onslaught of threats, like many other native species they are losing ground with a more recent one – loss of habitat from human activity. VDGIF reports that cottontail populations have declined over the past 50 years or so, primarily from habitat loss, and offers strategies on its website (www.dgif.virginia.gov) that landowners can implement to help boost populations.