Massachusetts is home to two species of wild rabbit—the native New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and the non-native Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus).
The latter was introduced into the state before 1900 and is now by far the most common rabbit in Massachusetts. As a result of this intense competition, the New England Cottontail has become rare throughout the region.
Both species breed in a variety of human-populated habitats including farmland, suburban yards, and even in isolated, weedy patches in the middle of cities. Since both cottontails and people exist in large numbers, they interact quite frequently—particularly when rabbit populations peak in late summer and early fall.
How to Identify
Both of the species found in Massachusetts look very much alike, but they do have slightly different features.
The New England Cottontail has a darker back, a broad black stripe on the outer edge of the ear, and usually a black spot between the ears.
The Eastern Cottontail has a paler coat, cinnamon-rust nape, and a narrow black margin extending along the front edge and tip of the ear. It sports a white or light brown spot on the forehead.
Cottontails are solitary creatures that are most active between dusk and dawn. Generally silent, rabbits may communicate by soft grunts and purrs and by thumping the ground with the hind feet. When caught by a predator, they can produce a bloodcurdling scream.
Wild cottontails have a life expectancy of less than two years. Nearly half the young die within a month of birth, largely because cottontails are important links in many food chains. Foxes, weasels, raccoons, minks, snakes, crows, and several common species of raptors are all at least partially dependent on cottontails for food.
To escape from enemies or to seek shelter from inclement weather, cottontails use any convenient natural or human-made cavity including a culvert, dense thicket, or existing burrow excavated by a woodchuck, fox, or skunk.
Eastern Cottontails do not hibernate—they are active year-round. The average Massachusetts cottontail spends its entire life in an area of less than 1.5 acres, although in the winter it may move a mile or so from its summer feeding area in order to obtain better cover or a new food supply.
Cottontails will eat any vegetation from grass to bark, twigs, and buds. Rabbits prefer to eat tender young shoots—clover, dandelions, prized tulips—and they may also damage ornamental trees by eating the bark. In the vegetable garden, their favorites include lettuce, beans, and beets, and they also enjoy strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.
Coprophagy (the ingestion of feces) plays a key role in rabbit nutrition. When the rabbit defecates, some of its fecal pellets are green and moist and contain undigested food. The rabbit swallows these without chewing them. The repeated passage through the rabbit's gut allows time for bacterial digestion to continue, and more nutrients become available for absorption. This re-digestion of food may be important for the survival of an herbivore that often interrupts its feeding to flee a predator.
Sexually promiscuous and forming no lasting pair bond, Massachusetts cottontails may mate as early as mid-February and as late as September. The gestation period occurs for less than 30 days. Litters average five young (rarely as many as eight), and the female is usually receptive to mating soon after giving birth. One doe may produce three litters in a New England season.
When a doe cottontail is ready to give birth, she finds a convenient hole or rock crevice, or digs a shallow “scrape” (four inches or less in depth) in dry ground. She might seek a site with brushy cover, but it’s not unusual to find a nest in the middle of a suburban lawn.
The female lines the nest with several layers of fur, grass, leaves, rabbit droppings, and perhaps a bit of paper or other trash. Newborn cottontails are two inches long, weigh less than one ounce, and are naked, blind, and deaf—therefore totally helpless. They mature rapidly, leaving the nest in just over two weeks and become completely independent by the time they reach three- to four-weeks old. A young rabbit won’t reach full size for about four months.
Males take no part whatever in the rearing process, and on average, the female suckles the young only two or three times per night, rarely visiting the nest otherwise.. During the day, she usually rests in a hollow or “form” of her own making, about 20 feet or so from the nest. This parental schedule explains why human observers often assume that rabbit nests have been abandoned.
Situations & Solutions
While rabbits generally steer clear of people, they can cause some damage to gardens and yards.
In Your Garden
Cottontails don’t dig in the soil for bulbs or roots to eat, but they still pose a problem in the garden. Foliage that has been nipped off sharply, leaving no ragged edges, is usually the result of rabbit nibbling.
Options for keeping rabbits from eating your flowers, fruits, and veggies include:
- Spreading dried blood fertilizer around your flowerbeds or vegetable garden.
- Removing any piles of brush and debris that might serve as cover.
- Placing an inexpensive two-foot-high fence of chicken wire (one-inch mesh is needed to keep out the smallest rabbits) around the garden with the bottom tight to the ground or buried underground a few inches.
- Protecting ornamental shrubs by surrounding them with quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth that extends higher than the rabbit can reach when snow is on the ground.
Nests in Your Yard
It is not uncommon for homeowners to come across nests, baby rabbits, or injured rabbits in yards.
If a nest is discovered, the easiest solution is to tolerate its brief presence. Young rabbits leave the nest about two weeks after birth. Don’t attempt to relocate a nest; it’s highly unlikely that the mother cottontail will succeed in finding it.
To protect the nest from lawn mowers, place three-foot high stakes in a circle, at least eight feet from the nest, and attach “caution tape” to each stake. This provides a better solution than fencing because the nest area remains visible and the movement of the young is not restricted. Also, keep pets and children away.
If a baby rabbit is removed from a nest by a person or pet, immediately return the cottontail to the nest. Wear gloves and handle the animal as little as possible to avoid transferring odor to it. If the rabbit has been handled, rub a large handful of grass between your hands until it’s juicy and then wipe your hands on the rabbit’s head, back, and tail back before placing it back in the nest. Hopefully this will conceal any human odor.
If a rabbit appears in good health and is four or more inches long, return it to where it was found or move it to an area in the yard with shrubbery or uncut grass.
Any wild animal that appears to be injured, including cottontails, should be evaluated by a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Attempts by non-professionals to rear young mammals—especially rabbits—nearly always end in failure, prolonged suffering for the animal, and unnecessary grief for the people involved.
Cottontails & Rabies
All mammals, including cottontails, are susceptible to rabies. Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system and is invariably fatal to wildlife. Learn more >