Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

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The most common rabbit in the United States, the eastern cottontail rabbit is also found in South America. It gets its name from the fluffy white fur on the underside of its tail. The eastern cottontail rabbit is a grazing animal that is adapted for quick movement. It has strong hind legs that enable it to quickly escape from danger. In addition, its bulging eyes give it a wide field of vision for detecting predators.

Habits: The eastern cottontail rabbit occupies a large area of the eastern United States. It is found in heavy brush, in woodland areas near open country, in cultivated fields, and along swamp edges. It is mainly nocturnal but may be active from early evening to late morning. It usually spends its day in a depression in the ground or beneath a pile of undergrowth. It does not live in burrows, although in cold weather it may find shelter in another animal’s abandoned burrow. When the ground is covered in deep snow, it makes a network of runs beneath the surface. The eastern cottontail rabbit is not a territorial animal; its range of 1,000 to 8,000 square feet overlaps with the ranges of other rabbits. When pursued by an enemy, it usually runs in circles, often jumping sideways to avoid leaving a scent trail.

Food and Feeding: Like all rabbits, the eastern cottontail rabbit is a grazer, eating mainly grass and herbs. When grass and leaves are scarce, it eats bark, twigs, seeds, and roots. Rabbits and hares eat large quantities of green vegetation. Their digestive system is adapted to process a large amount of plant matter. They also eat some of their own feces in order to extract as much nutrition as possible from their food. Rabbits produce two types of feces: soft feces they ingest, and hard pellets they leave undisturbed on the ground. An eastern cottontail rabbit can do major damage to crops and gardens.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit and Man: The eastern cottontail rabbit is a favorite prey of hunters. It thrives in cultivated and populated areas, making it easy prey. In the 1920s, wildlife agencies, together with hunting clubs, imported eastern cottontail rabbits to Kansas, Missouri, Texas, and Pennsylvania, since the local subspecies had dwindled. The rabbits bred with local species to produce a new hybrid, which is now widespread. The eastern cottontail rabbit is considered a pest by gardeners in some areas. The eastern cottontail rabbit is one of the most commonly hunted small game animals.

Breeding: Breeding season lasts from February to September. During this time the female, or doe, may be territorial. The fertile female can produce three to four litters of nine young each year. Still, as many as 90 percent of the young die. Although many species of rabbit do not make nests, the cottontail rabbit does, since its young need a relatively long period of care. A week before birth, the doe digs a shallow depression in the ground. She lines it with grass and leaves, as well as with fur she pulls from her breast and belly. By removing some of her fur, she exposes her nipples for the young to suck.

The young are born blind and naked. The mother returns to the nest to suckle the young, who develop quickly, reaching sexual maturity in three to five months. Within hours after birth, the doe mates again. These baby cottontail will be able to breed by the time they are 12 weeks old.

Key Facts:
Length: Head and body, 1-1 ½ ft. Ears, 2-3 in. Tail, 1-2 in.
Weight: About 2-4 lb.

Sexual maturity: 3-5 months
Breeding season: February to September
Gestation: 26-30 days
No. of young: 1-9; usually 4-5

Habit: Mainly solitary, but has been observed frolicking in groups
Diet: Grass and leaves. In winter: bark, twigs, and seeds
Lifespan: 10 years in captivity; 2-3 years in the wild

Related Species: There are 13 species of rabbit in the genus, 7 of which are called cottontails.
Distribution: Eastern United States, except for New England, extending west to North Dakota, Texas, northern New Mexico, and Arizona. Also in parts of Central and South America
Conservation: The eastern cottontail rabbit is the most common and widespread of all cottontail rabbits, and it is not an endangered species.

Features of the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit:
Body size: the female, or doe, is larger than the male, called a buck.
Hind legs: Its powerful back legs enable it to reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour and hop over nine feet in the air.

Comparison of Species:
Desert Cottontail: Pale gray fur with distinct yellow tinge. Smaller than eastern cottontail.
Mountain Cottontail: paler gray than eastern cottontail. Noticeably larger. Black tipped ears.

Did You Know: If all the young from one breeding pair of eastern cottontail rabbits were to survive, together with their offsprings’ young, they could produce 350,000 rabbits in five years.
The eastern cottontail rabbit is not affected by myxomatosis, a disease that kills the European rabbit.
Sylvilagus idahoensis, the pygmy rabbit, is the only species in the genus that constructs its own burrow.