Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.
South Vermont Hill Road, Holland, N.Y.

Species Profile...Cottontail Rabbit

by Michael R. Olek

If you ask most young children in spring to name a rabbit that they might see in their back yards, the answer would probably be, " umm… the Easter Bunny?" Ask any wildlife rehabilitator to name a rabbit that they see around Easter and they would probably roll their eyes, grin, and answer, " Cottontail rabbits". People often ask, "what is the most common species that wildlife rehabilitators get calls about?" Again the answer would be, "Cottontail rabbits".

I recall one call that I received from a woman concerned about a rabbit digging a hole in her yard. She had asked me if rabbits laid eggs. I couldn’t resist a joke so I answered, "Only the Easter Bunny ma’am!" Then I explained the facts of rabbit life to her. Most new wildlife rehabilitators learn the ropes of rehabbing by working with rabbits, due to the frequency of rabbit calls. Cottontail babies are frequently caught by cats and dogs, cut by lawn mowers and weed whackers, and displaced by the spring time activities of humans. We begin gardening, remove swimming pool covers, or clean up our back yards in preparation for summer, and we accidentally uncover a nest of baby bunnies. It is not uncommon for rehabbers to get at least one or two rabbit calls on a daily basis, from spring to late summer. We all know that rabbits are prolific breeders. Natures’ way of ensuring the survival of a species that is near the bottom of the food chain is to make sure they have many babies.

 The Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is one of the most common rabbits in our area. They should not be confused with hares. Rabbits run - hares hop, or so I have been told! Baby rabbits are born altricial, meaning that they are dependent on their mother after birth. At birth, they are born with their eyes and ears closed, without fur, and unable to walk around. Baby hares are born precocial, meaning that they are born with their eyes open, they are able to hop around, and already have fur at birth. I have also heard people refer to rabbits as rodents. Rabbits are not in the rodent family, they are Lagomorphs.

Did You Know Rabbits Rarely Dwell in Holes?

Cottontails are considered crepuscular, which means that they are most active around dawn or dusk. When not active, cottontails rest in a depression in the ground called a form. Only during severe storms, will a cottontail seek out an old woodchuck hole or rock crevice to hide in. A cottontail’s average home range is between three to six acres, but they can extend to about 15 acres. Rabbits generally use the same trails every day. All of life’s needs are found along their daily trails. Even when running from danger a Cottontail rabbit will usually stay on it’s trail, which generally loops around in a wide circle. Cottontails eat such a wide variety of vegetation and fruit that to mention dietary specifics would be beyond the scope of this profile. Winter diet changes to woody plants, soft bark, and small twigs when the usual grasses are unavailable. Like many herbivores, Cottontails practice coprophagy, which means that they eat some of their feces right from their anus. This is necessary to re-ingest undigested plant matter to obtain nutrients that would have been passed out and lost.

In our area of Western New York, Cottontails begin breeding around February and continue until late September. During courtship the buck and doe go through an odd ritual where the buck will try to gain acceptance and mating position. He will either urinate on her, or she will urinate on him, and they will then groom prior to mating. Gestation is about 28 days long. The doe will prepare a nest near the base of a tree, root, rock, or along the edge of a wall or other man made object, where the soil suits her. She will dig a hole about four inches deep and up to eight inches long. She will line the hole with bits of dried grass and fur that she pulls from her body. The mother rabbit will give birth to as many as three to nine young, with an average of four. The doe will then cover the nest with dry grasses, and leave the area. The babies will remain in the nest, while the doe purposely stays away to keep the location of the nest a secret from predators. Mom will only return to feed the young at night. She will squat over the hole while the babies instinctively reach up to nurse. At only a few days of age the eyes and ears open. At 10 days of age the young begin to sample the grass just outside the den entrance.

At three to four weeks of age the young are weaned, and the small white spot of fur on their forehead usually begins to disappear. By the 4th and 5th week they are on their own, and their mother does not return. At this stage they are about six inches long and their only defense is to sit absolutely still in hopes to avoid discovery by a predator. When danger gets too close, they will try to run to the safety of cover. As soon as the doe has covered her new young in one nest, she will immediately mate again.

Why is the Easter Bunny a symbol of Spring? For ancient peoples, the natural fertility of the rabbit seemed to signify the fertility and prosperity that is promised as trees begin to bud and crops are planted. We hunt for Easter eggs so we can share in nature’s abundance. As you begin to get your homes and gardens ready for warmer weather, look for nature’s sign of abundance, and be aware of the needs of the rabbits who may share your land.

If baby bunnies are cold and limp, they need to be rescued!

Rabbit rehab tip #1.  If you discover a bunny nest, do not assume the young are abandoned. Cover the nest back up with the dry grass, mark the top of the nest with two thin twigs in an "X" pattern, and leave the area. Check back the next day. If the X is moved, the mother is returning to feed them. If the X is intact, uncover the young and feel them to see if they are warm. If they are cold and limp, then they need to be rescued.  For more info, see "What to do if you find a baby bunny".

Rabbit rehab tip # 2. Always support the back legs of an adult Cottontail when handling it. Their skeletal system is only four percent of their body weight and violent kicking can break their spine. Never hold them by their ears, and never hold them by the scruff of their neck. Rabbit skin is very thin and will pull loose from their subcutaneous tissue easily, causing what is known as a degloving injury.

© Copyright 2000 Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

This species profile is copyrighted and may only be reprinted with the express permission of Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

Return to the Trail

  AOL users, please uncheck "Compress Graphics"
under "My Preferences" (WWW) for best quality of graphics. 
Then click on "CTRL" and the "Refresh" button
to ensure you are seeing the page without the AOL compression.

[Home] [Mission] [Membership] [Executive Board] [Advisory Board]
[Educational Resources] [Meet our Volunteers] [How You can Volunteer]
[Info on Baby Birds] [Info on Baby Bunnies]
[Wildlife First Aid]
[Newsletter Excerpts]  
[More Ways to Help] [Volunteer Resources & Forms]
[FAQs]  [Wish List]  [Events]
[Visit Our New Hospital]


Messinger Woods
Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.
P.O. Box 508
Orchard Park, New York  14127

Copyright © 1997-2012 Messinger Woods Wildlife Care and Education Center, Inc..
Web Design by Webbed Works.