The cottontail is a familiar wild animal for many urban and most suburban and rural people. Children are often introduced to rabbits through the famous Tales of Peter Rabbit or through familiar cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny. Most children learn about the Easter Bunny. Although the stories are pure fantasy, even city gardeners know that rabbits frequently invade gardens! Cottontails are common in urban and abundant in rural settings. The cottontail's scientific name is Sylvilagus floridanus.
Eastern cottontail rabbits are easily identified by their cotton-puff tail. The tail has brownish fur on the upper part and white fur underneath. Their upper body fur (pelage) consists of brown, black and tan banded hairs. This pattern gives a tweedy or speckled appearance. The orange patch on the back of their neck frequently goes unnoticed. The lower body fur is white or gray. The fur color does not change during the year. Cottontails have large ears and large hind feet. All rabbits have large front teeth (incisors) with peg-like teeth located just behind them.
Rabbit habitat needs to meet four basic needs: winter cover, winter food, summer cover and summer food. Brush piles, dense brush, tall dry grass and woodchuck burrows make good winter cover. During winter periods with little snow rabbits eat grasses and various forbs. The bark of young trees and shrubs is eaten when snow covers other plant foods. During the summer, rabbits take cover in tall grass, brush, briars and thickets. Summer food consists of green grasses, legumes, and various other herbs or forbs.
Winter food and cover may be a problem on farm lands resulting in lower rabbit populations. The four basic needs are usually provided where rural land and suburbia meet leading to high rabbit populations in those areas. Urban dwelling rabbits may have difficulty finding adequate summer or winter cover which limits their population in those regions.
Rabbits do not occur in a forested situation unless lumbering activities have created appropriate habitat. Lumbering activities provide areas where trees have been cut down, thus permitting herbs and young trees to sprout. The leftover brush piles provide excellent cover.
The size of a rabbit's home range varies with seasons. During the winter, males use territories of about 100 acres while females use 14 acres. Summer ranges are 10 acres for a male and 4 acres for a female. These figures are higher in good habitat and lower in poor habitat.
Courtship. Female and male cottontail courtship activities include cautious approaches, sitting and staring at each other, chasing, and wild leaping. Male rabbits will breed with any receptive female they happen to meet. Females reject additional suitors after they have mated.
Rearing young. Rabbits are born 28 days after mating. The female mates again shortly after giving birth. The female builds a nest by digging a shallow depression in the ground. She lines it with dead grasses and fur. A roof of dead grasses and fur covers the nest to protect it from rain and other weather conditions. Nest locations may include urban and suburban lawns, unmowed meadows, and under bushes.
Rabbits are born completely naked, blind and helpless (a condition called altricial). They are about 4 inches long at birth and nurse from their mother for 20 days. Female cottontails nurse their litter just before dawn and just after sunset. They open the roof of the nest and lay over the top of it so the young can reach the mother's nipples for nursing.
Then she covers the young up again to protect them from weather and predators. The young will leave the nest at 20 days and can begin breeding at 3 months of age.
General behavior. Cottontail rabbits are crepuscular in behavior which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. This is the best time to see them. They spend the remainder of the day resting in hollows called forms. The form is in vegetation or snow where there is some protection from snow and wind. Overhead cover such as a bush protects the rabbit from birds of prey. Rabbits frequently use woodchuck, skunk or badger burrows during winter months and sunbathe in any nearby sunny spots.
Signs of rabbit presence include shrubs or seedlings cleanly nipped off at the snowline to about 24 inches above the snowline. Another sign is piles of their round, dark colored droppings. Dark colored urine stains may be located in the snow. Their tracks are quite distinctive in snow or muddy areas. When hopping, the hind feet land first with the front foot prints appearing inside the back feet's prints.
Rabbits make few sounds. They do make soft grunts when taking care of their young. Rabbits also communicate by thumping their hind feet. They make a large scream or squeal when attacked by a predator. This scream has been compared to the cry of a human baby.
The large eyes on the side of a cottontail rabbit's head provide vision over a wide area. Its large ears can turn side to side and allows the rabbit to pick up very faint sounds. If a strange sound is heard, the rabbit instantly stops all movement to avoid being noticed. If that fails, the rabbit runs fast, using its powerful hind legs to escape. They rapidly hop away in a zigzag fashion which makes them harder to catch. A rabbit that cannot escape may fight, using its hind feet to make quick blows and deep scratches on the attacker. These adaptations aid the rabbit in escaping predators (animals that eat other animals).