About Cottontails

Rabbit © Chirs Ruggiero
© Chirs Ruggiero

Massachusetts is home to two species of rabbit, the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and the eastern cottontail (S. floridanus). The latter was introduced into the state before 1900 and is now the most common rabbit in Massachusetts. The native wild New England cottontail, probably as a consequence of this competition, has become rare throughout the region. 

Both species breed in a variety of human-populous habitats, including farmland, suburban yards, and even in isolated, weedy patches in the city. Since both cottontails and people exist in large numbers and are nearly ubiquitous, they interact frequently, particularly when rabbit populations peak in late summer and early fall.

How to Identify

The species found in Massachusetts look very much alike, yet 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 differs only slightly, with a paler coat, a 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.

Wild cottontails have a life expectancy of less than two years. Nearly half the young die within a month of birth, chiefly because cottontails are important links in many food chains. Foxes, weasels, raccoons, minks, snakes, crows, and several common species of hawks and owls, are all at least partially dependent on cottontails for food.

Cottontail Behavior

Cottontails are solitary creatures, active mostly 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.

To escape from enemies or to seek shelter from inclement weather, cottontails use any convenient natural or human-made cavity, such as a culvert, a dense thicket, or an existing burrow excavated by a woodchuck, fox, or skunk.

Eastern cottontails do not hibernate, but are active year-round.  The average Massachusetts cottontail spends its entire life in an area of less than an acre and a half, 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.

Food

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, or the ingestion of feces, plays a 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.

Life Cycle

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 damage gardens. Learn More about what you can do if you have rabbits in your garden or nests in your yard.