Wilderness Underfoot: The eastern cottontail

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This short-lived species must eat fast, grow fast, and breed fast to survive being the favorite dish on the menu of so many predators

Eastern cottontails are among the most frequently seen rabbits in our state. They thrive in almost every habitat in our region, so long as they have food and somewhere to hide. They’re prevalent on the edges of woodlands, in prairies, and along railroads where short brush and other hiding places are plentiful. Despite being nervous around people, cottontails have even adapted to urban areas.

These rabbits grow quite fast and are capable of breeding only two or three months after they’re born. By the time fall arrives, as many as one out of every five cottontails in any given population may be the offspring of rabbits born in the spring of the same year. Cottontails can produce up to six litters annually, with four to six offspring in each litter—hence the expression, breeding like rabbits!

Before mating, cottontails will engage in a ritual of chasing, dancing and then facing one another while the female spars with the male. Then they’ll leap several feet into the air, repeating the ritual for about 15 minutes. About a month after mating, the female gives birth in a nest she’s built within a shallow burrow.

She drives off any males that stray too close. Her offspring are furless, helpless and blind when they’re born—unlike hares, which are fully furred, able to see and move about. Even so, she doesn’t spend much time in the nest. She nurses the young at dawn, and then later in the afternoon. Because of this, people who discover nests of baby rabbits often mistakenly assume they have been abandoned. Litters from two or more females may be present in one nest.

The rapid pace of breeding among rabbits is an important part of the natural cycle. Most cottontails are fated to be dined on by such predators as snakes, eagles, owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, badgers and humans. They’re lucky to survive to adulthood, and even those that do rarely live longer than 12 to 15 months. Very few reach their full life expectancy of about three years.

Among their favorite foods are dandelions, clover and plantain (right). Cottontails also chew soft, woody plants, nipping off twigs, shoots, buds and bark. They’re notorious for raiding gardens. These rabbits will eat almost any crop with the exception of squashes, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.

From the April 12-18, 2006, issue

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