Rabbits can be a nuisance when they nibble on elegant grasses, snip tender branches off precious shrubs or munch on coneflowers. Not to mention the leveling they can do to a vegetable patch — that alone can leave a hardworking gardener feeling bereft. But they’re otherwise harmless wildlife, loved by children and adults alike.
Rabbits are prey for just about everything that’s large enough to catch and hold onto 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 lifespan of eight to 10 years. At least 50 percent never leave the nest. Pity the poor rabbit.
Cottontail rabbits, Sylvilagus floridanus, belong to the order Lagomorpha (lag-oh-MOR-fuh) and the family Laporidae. There are about 60 species of rabbits and hares in their family, and 13 of them are cottontail rabbits. Cottontails have a short, white cottony-looking tail, so you can easily how they got their name. The oldest complete rabbit fossil dates back 55 million years, to the late Paleocene and early Eocene epochs. Scientists are able to discern that it had a similar method of movement to rabbits of today.
Nine species of cottontails 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, however, are generally similar in appearance and habits, differing only in size, habitat and range.
Full grown Eastern Cottontails are about 15 to 19 inches long (38 to 49 cm) and weigh 2 to 4 pounds (0.9 to 1.8 kg). Males and females are generally the same size and color.
Body: Eastern Cottontail Rabbits are named for their short, white cottony-looking tail. 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 shed their hair twice a year. Their summer coat is short and brown, and their winter coat is longer and grayer.
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.
Eyes and eyesight: Eastern Cottontails have large brown protruding eyes situated high and on the sides of their head. That gives them 360 degrees of vision, except for a small blind spot directly in front. If you were to face one straight on, it would slightly turn its head to see you better. Their eyesight is designed for detection of movement, and while good it lacks the focal precision of a human’s. They have limited color vision, apparently able to perceive only some blue and green wavelengths.
Nose and 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’re smelling scents in the air. 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 delicate. (Humans, by comparison, have a mere 5 or 6 million receptors.) Watch a rabbit twitching its nose.
Ears and hearing: Eastern Cottontails have large ears, about 2 to 3 inches long (4.9 to 7.6 cm), which they hold straight up and can swivel independently. Their sense of hearing is very keen.
Teeth: 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. Indeed, they must gnaw to keep their teeth “filed” to the proper length. So, Eastern Cottontails chew on our precious plants and shrubs for the food, but also because they need to.
Difference between rabbit and hare: Why isn’t the rabbit a hare? Well, they are closely related, but there are some differences. Hares are born with hair and their eyes open, with good vision; rabbits are born hairless and blind. Hares are generally larger and have longer legs. Hares have longer ears. Hares are rather solitary while rabbits live in social groups and nest in burrows or warrens (except for cottontail rabbits). Hares typically live in open areas, like deserts, while rabbits do not (see Habitat, below).
Eastern Cottontails are mostly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and spend most of the day hidden within thick cover; or burrows in harsh weather. They occasionally pop out in mid-day to nibble along the edge of shrubs, in the flower garden or in a patch of grasses.
Always on the lookout for danger, they typically move slowly and hop or jump only short distances, then crouch or freeze to avoid catching the attention of predators. They also freeze when they first sense a threat. Sadly for many, they wait too long before deciding to flee, and come to a tragic end. Staying in place, on the other hand, often protects them from predators, such as cats, which react to movement. If this fails, they race away 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.
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: It leaps in the air and over the back of its predator. As it sails over it gives the predator a powerful kick in the head or neck with its hind legs. (Be careful if handling a wild rabbit — humans, too, can be at the receiving end of these surprisingly strong, aggressive maneuvers. They’ll also bite.)
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.
Communication: They’re 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.
Intelligence and emotions: 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 food storage container when his food bowl goes empty.
Medical imaging studies have shown that humans and animals have the same neural activity in primitive parts of the brain that are associated with emotions. This implies they feel at least some of the same emotions we do. Owners of domesticated rabbits claim they show anger, jealousy, love, grief and other emotions. If that’s the case, it can be assumed that wild rabbits would, too.
As you may already know, rabbits are birthing machines. Males may be sexually mature at one month of age and females within their first year. Eastern Cottontail breeding season is from about January through June, with most young born in May and June. Mating and births occur a little later in the north and earlier in southern climates. The female is capable of producing a litter of up to eight or more babies (called kits or kittens) every 30 days, through five pregnancies per season. Usually, they have three litters producing four or five kits. A different male fathers each litter. Males don’t participate in the parenting.
Cottontails have an entertaining courtship display: A male chases a female until she turns and faces him, after which 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 the female, leaps up to 15 feet (4.57 m) into the air and flips around 180 degrees. Meanwhile, she 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 won’t mate again until after her litter is born.
Nesting and offspring
Eastern Cottontail kits might be born in an old burrow, but it’s more likely to be a narrow hole 4 to 6 inches deep (10 to 15.3 cm), 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 for insulation.
At birth, the kits are about 4 inches long (10 cm), deaf, blind, nearly bald and their ears lay flat. Their mother nurses them for the first time, covers them with grasses, leaves or other debris, then slips away. The kits will lie side-by-side and as 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 long ears start to raise up from their flattened position.
The 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 back 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.
The 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 need cecotropes at this age. Without them, their gut becomes overwhelmed with abnormal bacteria and they can die a painful death. Partly for this reason, keeping rescued babies alive is 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 around. They may make low purring, growling and grunting sounds. All this playing gives them the skills they’ll need for maneuvers 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.
Eastern Cottontails have 17,000 taste buds (humans have 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 and boring to many humans.
In spring and summer, the 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 enclose our young trees with tree wrap or plastic sleeves.) They also eat spilled seed at bird feeders.
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.
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, sport hunters and autos.