Rabbits in our midst

The Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is commonly seen in Frederick County; less often seen is the very similar Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus). They are named for their white fluffy tails. Cottontails are vegetarian, a diet that can mean problems for gardeners.

Credit: umd.edu - Frank Doyle, USFWS

They are also territorial, staying near their home location.Eastern cottontails are observed to have a home range of about an acre to an acre and a half, but can occupy a range of as little as a tenth of an acre when habit conditions are desirable. A cottontail does not dig a burrow or den, but will use brush piles, depressions, or abandoned dens of other animals as a nesting area.

Very prolific, they reach maturity to mate in a year and can produce litters of about a half-dozen young up to 5 times per year in our area. The young are born blind and with little hair about 28 to 30 days after mating. Newborn rabbits grow rapidly, nursed by their mother, becoming able to see in a few days and finding their own food about two weeks after birth. Cottontail rabbits are most active in the morning and evening.

Eastern cottontail rabbit in Frederick

Credit: frederick.forestryboard.org - Tom Anderson

Eastern cottontails occupy a wide range of habitat, including field edges, open areas and urban settings.

Although both are native to our area, the Appalachian cottontail is found in more mountainous areas. They both have similar brown coloring, with white underneath. An observable difference is that the Eastern cottontail has longer and more pointed ears. The Appalachian cottontail is slightly smaller in size with some gray on the cheeks. Appalachian cottontails like habitats with dense cover, while Eastern cottontails can thrive in more field edge and urban settings. The diet of the Appalachian cottontail includes more broadleaf plants, while the Eastern cottontail eats more grasses. Vegetable and flower gardens are often preferred by cottontails to their wild diet of natural grasses and plants. The photo shows an Eastern cottontail grazing in a grassy patch in the city of Frederick.

Cottontails have many predators, including cats, dogs, foxes, bobcats, weasels, raccoons, snakes, crows, hawks and owls. The large populations of Eastern cottontails are a major food source for many predator species. There is research that shows up to 75 percent of bobcats’ diets and half of great horned owl diets have been found to be Eastern cottontails.

When approached by a threat, the innate response of an Eastern cottontail is to run in a zig-zag pattern to try and elude capture. However, around 50 percent of cottontails are consumed by predators annually. Disease and automobiles further reduces rabbit numbers. It is estimated that about 20 percent of Eastern cottontails survive one year, with the average life span in the wild being about 15 months. In captivity, they can reach 9 years in age.

Rabbits can host a variety of parasites and diseases, including ticks, fleas, bot flies and tularemia. While hunting of cottontail rabbits is permitted and popular activity in Maryland, it is recommended that sluggish-appearing rabbits not be taken due to the risk of disease, and rabbit meat not be consumed if rare or undercooked. Similarly, rabbits that do not run should not be approached, as this can be a symptom of tularemia or other disease that may be harmful to humans.

Article by Tom Anderson, FCFCDB

Nature Note for 8/10/14