Critter Corner No. 9 – Eastern Cottontail by George Sly

For this edition of Critter Corner, I’d like to shift gears and return again to consideration of Goose Pond mammals. Since the fall hunting season is well upon us, it seems appropriate to ponder the habits of one of the state’s most popular game animals – the eastern cottontail rabbit. This very familiar animal belongs to a family of mammals known as the Leporidae. There are about 27 species within this family in the United States. Six of these are jackrabbit species, a couple of them are hares (snowshoe & Arctic), and the rest are rabbits of various kinds. Most of these are in the genus Sylvilagus (Latin silvi- woods+ Greek lagōs hare), as is our native cottontail. Incidentally, we do have one other species of rabbit here in Indiana. Sylvilagus aquaticus, the swamp rabbit, is a larger cousin of our eastern cottontail. This species occurs only in the forested flood plains of Gibson, Knox, and Posey Counties. It is protected as an endangered animal in Indiana. Jackrabbits may be considered a type of hare and these leporids differ from rabbits in a few ways. For example, newborn hares are precocial while rabbits are altricial. Precocial young are furred at birth, have opened eyes, and are capable of being highly active within minutes of birth. Picture a neonatal antelope or deer for example. Altricial rabbits on the other hand are born furless, closed-eyed, and helpless. They must remain in the nest (form) for several days before they actively move about. Hares are generally larger than rabbits and have bigger ears and longer hind legs. Jackrabbits are close to two feet in length and can weigh upwards of 10 pounds. An eastern cottontail is by comparison a little over a foot in length and weighs an average of 2.6 pounds. Many years ago, my first jackrabbit burst forth from beneath a creosote bush in SW Texas. Initially, as my mind raced to identify the fleeing missile, I was perplexed and mentally ran through a checklist of fox-sized animals. Jackrabbits really do look huge when one is only accustomed to seeing a rabbit darting out from underfoot.

Eastern cottontails will utilize habitats of many different types. However their preference seems to be for oldfield type environments, particularly those which contain briars and brush. Although they may occur in wooded habitat and even in urban areas, thick ground cover is optimal for them. Cottontails do not burrow but will readily utilize subterranean dens made by other mammals such as woodchucks. Eastern cottontails eat a wide variety of plant materials. Warm weather foods might include grasses, clover, and plantain. During the winter, eastern cottontails turn from grazing and become browsers. During this time they eat the bark and sprouts of woody plants such as maple, sassafras, and briars. The feeding habits of cottontails are interesting in that they are able to consume large amounts of vegetation quickly and then convert it into a form for later use. This allows them to reduce the amount of time that they forage in the open where they are vulnerable to predators. Later, withdrawing to a more secluded spot they will produce fecal pellets that are nothing more than undigested plant material. These pellets look very much like little miniature versions of the alfalfa pellets one might feed to livestock. The cottontails then eat these fecal pellets and this time more completely digest the organic material in them. A feeding behavior such as this is known as coprophagy.

The reproductive potential of the eastern cottontail is indeed great. Given its many enemies, it is a good thing it can quickly regenerate its numbers. Average litter size is around five young and they can produce as many as half a dozen litters per year although three or four is more common. The gestation period is about one month. The young are born in a slight depression in the ground made by the female which she lines with grass and with fur plucked from her belly. Young rabbits begin to leave the nest and forage on their own by the second week following their birth. Eastern cottontails really do have a tough go of it. Although it is possible for some rabbits to live over three years, the average life expectancy is slightly less than one year. Decimating factors include parasites, disease, and predators. Of course, nowadays automobiles are an extreme hazard to cottontails. This is especially true where habitat availability is minimal and may consist primarily of roadside vegetation. Mumford and Whitaker (1982) list some twenty species of parasites found on eastern cottontails. These included a variety of fleas, mites, and ticks. An important disease of rabbits is tularemia given that this bacterial infection may be transmitted to humans. My grandfather was always insistent that I thoroughly wash my hands with soap, and then give them a good dousing with rubbing alcohol, after cleaning the rabbits we harvested. Look out for “rabbit fever” he warned. Mumford and Whitaker studied 68 case histories of tularemia and found that 88% of them involved contact with rabbits. The disease may also be transmitted by ticks. If this disease is unfamiliar to you, there is an interesting discussion on Wikipedia.

The predators of eastern cottontails are many. These include the red fox, gray fox, and coyote. Domestic cats will also take them. Serpents such as black rat snakes may eat young cottontails. Avian predators know to attack cottontails include barn owls, long-eared owls, great horned owls, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, and crows. Of course humans take a great number of eastern cottontails during the hunting season. At Goose Pond FWA however eastern cottontails seem to be an under utilized late-season game resource. GPFWA Property Manager Travis Stoelting reported that only 38 rabbits were taken by hunters last year. This may be a reflection of the fact that the state has seen a general decrease over the years in the number of hunters pursuing rabbits. A 2011 article by Paul Moore, in Game & Fish Magazine, reported that around 200,000 rabbits are taken annually in Indiana compared to former numbers which were closer to one million. Looking further back, the latter number pales in comparison with the 2,243,000 cited by Mumford (1969) as the average number taken annually during the 1950’s. The number of rabbit hunters has also declined over the last few years from around 200,000 to 70,000. Moore believes that a shift toward more hunters pursuing deer and wild turkey have contributed to this decline. Additionally, he believed loss of habitat had resulted in decreased rabbit numbers. This is also a deterrent to hunters who might otherwise pursue rabbits. For those of us who have hunted the eastern cottontail with avid interest, it is no wonder that this species was at one time the most popular game animal in Indiana.

These days I find myself much more prone to photographing or simply watching a game animal. Such, I suppose, is the waning of the desire to take that comes with age. But I still recall with great fondness the hours I spent afield, as a young man, in pursuit of rabbits. The camaraderie of hunting companions, the genuine enjoyment of watching a good pair of beagles happily at work, and the thrill of the chase all bring pleasant memories. Of course the remembrance of a plateful of fried rabbit backed up by a healthy portion of biscuits and gravy is not to be lightly dismissed either. There is no wild game of finer taste in my humble opinion. In considering the many interesting aspects of the natural history of the eastern cottontail, as well as its historical importance as a small game mammal, we are forced to accept the presence of this little mammal at Goose Pond FWA as yet one more reason to celebrate the property’s wonderful biodiversity.

Useful Resources:
Mumford, Russell E. 1969. Distribution of the Mammals of Indiana. Ind. Acad. of Sci. Monograph No. 1 Mumford, Russell E. and John O. Whitaker, Jr. 1982, Mammals of Indiana. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, Indiana.