Rabbits may be a nuisance when they nibble on elegant grasses, snap tender branches off cotoneasters or munch on coneflowers. Not to mention the leveling they can do to a vegetable patch — that alone can leave a hardworking gardener bereft. But they’re otherwise harmless wildlife, loved by children and adults alike.
Cottontails are prey for just about everything that’s large enough to catch them — owls, crows, hawks, foxes, skunks, raccoons, snakes, weasels, opossums, dogs and cats. For that alone, it would seem rabbits deserve some easy pickings here and there in our yards during their very short lives: They’re lucky to live a year, even though they have a potential life span of eight to 10 years. At least 50 percent never leave the nest. Pity the poor rabbit.
Cottontails belong to the order Lagomorpha (lag-oh-MOR-fuh). The oldest complete rabbit fossil dates back 55 million years, in the late Paleocene and early Eocene epochs. It had a similar method of movement to rabbits of today.
There are 13 species of cottontail rabbits. Nine of them inhabit North America north of Mexico. The Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is the most widespread, ranging from the Great Plains to the East Coast, from Canada to South America. They’re the ones most of us see in our yards, so we’ll specifically describe them here. All cottontails are generally similar in appearance and habits, differing only in size, habitat and range.
Eastern Cottontails are named for their short, cottony tail, which they raise when they run, flashing a white underside. The hair on the upper part of their body consists of a dense, buff-brown underfur covered by longer, coarser, gray- and black-tipped guard hairs. Their underside is white. They molt twice a year. Their summer coat is short and brown and their winter coat is longer and grayer.
Full grown, Eastern Cottontails are about 15 to 19 inches long and weigh 2 to 4 pounds. Males and females are basically the same size and color.
Their teeth are adapted to ripping and gnawing on plants, including tree bark. Their upper front teeth grow continuously, which allows them to gnaw without wearing their teeth away. In deed, they must gnaw to keep their teeth “filed” to the proper length.
Eastern Cottontails are built for speed, jumping and agility, with powerful legs and large back feet. They can run 18 miles per hour for half a mile, while making sharp turns in a zig-zag pattern, to confuse predators. If they must, they’re also strong swimmers.
When you’re a heavily preyed on animal with few defenses, extraordinary senses are vital for survival. Eastern Cottontails have big, brown eyes with excellent vision. Their eyes are situated on the sides of their head and protrude — this gives them the ability to see nearly 180 degrees.
As for their sense of smell, have you noticed that rabbits twitch their nose? They do it between 20 and 120 times a minute, and for a good reason. They have 100 million sensing receptors in their nose and twitching exposes some of the receptors, which makes an already-exceptional sense of smell even more acute. (Humans, by comparison, have a mere 5 or 6 million.) Watch a rabbit twitching its nose.
Their large ears are smaller than those of jackrabbits, but their hearing is excellent. They can move their ears all around and pick up sounds from all directions.
Eastern Cottontails are mostly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and spend most of the day hidden within thick cover. Or, in harsh weather, burrows. They occasionally pop out in mid-day to nibble along the edge of shrubs, in the flower garden or in a patch of grasses.
Typically they move slowly and hop or jump only short distances, then crouch or freeze to avoid catching the attention of predators. When they first sense danger, they freeze. This can protect them from predators, such as cats, which react to movement. If that fails, they race away on their powerful legs through one of several escape routes they have already plotted throughout their range. The routes may include holes in fences, paths through dense vegetation or even through tunnels with multiple exits. If caught, they might play dead by going limp in the predator’s mouth. When the predator drops them, they suddenly race away. If all else fails, they’ll try to fight. Sadly for many, they wait too long before deciding they need to flee and come to a tragic end.
Like other rabbits, Eastern Cottontails fight each other: The ears go back, the chin juts forward, thumping begins, growls are emitted and a war is on. It can be fierce, with jumping, chasing, biting and boxing involved. Males fight with other males for females. Females will fight each other for control of a territory. And juveniles play-fight. The origin of the term “rabbit punch” is based on an action sometimes undertaken by a cornered rabbit: He leaps in the air and over the back of his predator. As he sails over he gives the predator a powerful kick in the head or neck with his hind legs. (Be careful if handling a wild rabbit — humans, too, can be at the receiving end of these surprisingly strong, aggressive maneuvers.)
Eastern Cottontails are solitary, except when mating or raising young. Despite this, they have a sense of community: They may warn others about perceived danger by stamping their hind feet to transmit vibrations through the ground.
Eastern cottontails are vocal animals and emit many different sounds, which you can listen to here. They make distress calls and may scream when caught by a predator. They also make a soft sound to express contentment — called a “purr,” it’s different from that of a cat and is produced by grinding their teeth.
Are rabbits smart? Well, you be the judge: They’re capable of learning their name and will follow simple commands. They also can be flawlessly trained to a litter box. One owner of a domestic rabbit says her pet has learned to unlatch his cage and also leads her to the rabbit food storage container when his food bowl goes empty. There’s also a story, possibly apocryphal, about a rabbit who kept forcing a hunting dog to jump back and forth over a fence to stay in pursuit, while the rabbit ran back and forth under the fence. The dog, exhausted, finally gave up and the rabbit got away.
Eastern Cottontails are territorial, especially the females during mating season. Neither sex ventures very far from their preferred home turf. They’re active year-round and prefer edge environments — open areas flanked by dense cover, such as, meadows, farmlands, the edge of swamps and marshes, residential areas and forest clearings. They travel a route of relative safety by, for example, skirting the edge of a woodpile and then following along the front of some thickets, then brushing past the grasses and finally pushing through the hedgerow to the meadow. City life has put these fragile animals at a bit of a disadvantage against predators because of the lack of thickets and heavy grasses.
As you may already know, rabbits are birthing machines. Breeding season in the Midwest is from about January through June, with most young born in May and June. This occurs a little later in the north and earlier in southern climates. The female (doe) is capable of producing a litter of up to eight or more babies (kits) every 30 days, through five pregnancies, but usually there are three litters producing four or five kits. A different male fathers each litter. Males don’t participate in the parenting.
Males may be sexually mature at one month of age and females within their first year. Cottontails have an entertaining courtship display: A male chases a female until she turns and faces him, whereupon she stands up on her hind legs and punches him in the ears and face. The two rabbits then sit facing each other. The male moves toward her and leaps straight into the air (up to 15 feet) and flips around 180 degrees. Meanwhile the female runs under him and turns 180 degrees. When he lands they’re both facing each other again. Then the female does the jump-and-spin while he does the run-and-spin. They alternate doing this repeatedly, until after a while mating commences. (This is the inspiration for the phrase, “Mad as a March hare.”) The female doesn’t mate again until after her litter is born.
Nesting and offspring
Kits might be born in an old burrow, but it’s more likely to be a narrow, 4- to 6-inch-deep hole dug by their mother in tall grasses, under thick bushes or another place she thinks is safe. The hiding place is lined with grass and soft fur she plucked from her own body to keep her babies warm.
Only 4 inches long, the newborns are deaf, blind and nearly naked. Their mother nurses them for the first time, covers them with grasses or leaf debris, then slips away. The kits will lay side-by-side and quiet as can be to stay warm and safe. Their eyes open in about a week. In two weeks they begin taking tentative excursions from the nest and, at about this same time, their large ears begin to raise up from a flattened position.
Their mother’s milk is so highly nourishing she comes to them only twice a day — early in the morning and at dusk. When she arrives, she claws away the covering and lies across the hole, belly down, so her young can nurse. Afterward, she covers them back up and quietly steals away, trying not to draw attention to them. She stays near them, at least part of the day, resting in a slight depression, called a form, that she creates by scraping away or trampling down the soil or vegetation.
Their mother continues to visit them until they’re 18 to 21 days old. Even though they’ve begun to forage on their own, they still need her milk. Starting at about 10 days old the kits eat her “cecotropes.” These are highly nutritious, gel-like, fermented fecal droppings that contain proteins, fiber, B and K vitamins, other nutrients and gut microbes that are essential for their digestion of solid food. (Hand-raised wild, or even domestic, kits must have cecotropes at this age, if they’re to survive. Without them, their gut becomes overwhelmed with abnormal bacteria and they die a painful death. Partly for this reason, keeping rescued babies alive is very difficult.) Adult male and female rabbits of all species eat their own green-colored cecotropes to re-ingest these same nutrients. They also defecate brown fecal pellets, which they don’t eat.
The kits grow into fluffy, playful juveniles, jumping into the air and chasing each other about. They may make low purring, growling and grunting sounds. All this playing skills them for the maneuvers they’ll need to win mates, rule their turf and save their lives. They hang around together for about seven weeks and then split off into their solitary lives.
Cottontails have 17,000 taste buds (humans have about 8,000 to 10,000), so they enjoy an intense flavor array, with subtleties we humans can’t imagine. Perhaps that’s what makes greens tasty to them, while boring to many humans.
In spring and summer, cottontails feed on buds, clover, succulent grasses, dandelion heads, flower blossoms, legumes, lettuce and even fruit. In winter, they eat buds, stems and the bark of woody plants, including young trees (the reason we may want to girdle our young trees with tree wrap or plastic sleeves.) They also eat spilled seed at bird feeders.
All rabbits are an important link in the food chain and if their generous rate of reproduction is any indicator, nature intended it that way. Still, it’s sad to think of how expendable and vulnerable they are. Predators include owls, crows, hawks, foxes, skunks, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, snakes, weasels, cats and dogs, hunters and autos.
Eastern Cottontail at a glance:
|Appearance: Reddish- or grayish-brown; short, cottony white tail.
Size: 2 – 4 lbs., (16 in. long)
Lifespan: 6-12 years
Range/habitat: Open areas near dense shrubs and trees; meadows, farmland, forest clearings, edge of swamps.
Behavior: Solitary, diurnal. Foods: Buds, clover, legumes, grass, dandelions, flowers, woody stems, bark, birdseed.
Nest: Usually 4-6-in. deep hole In tall grasses or under bushes.
Reproduction: Mating January – June; gestation 30 days; usually 4-5 offspring.
Predators: Hawks, owls, foxes, coyote, raccoon, opossum, snakes, cats, dogs, autos, hunters.
Called: Male: buck; female: doe; young: kit or kitten.
Common name: Eastern Cottontail