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What Time is it in Nature: Eastern Cottontail

September 13, 2014

It’s been an interesting summer at Prairie Ridge this year. The Purple Martins arrived a little early and migrated southward early this year. We normally find mostly Eastern Bluebirds in our observation nests, but this year we saw mostly Carolina Chickadees. We’ve had a greater than average number of Eastern Box Turtles spotted on the grounds. One species that been incredibly abundant this year can still be regularly seen on the grounds, the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Let’s explore the lives of these furry prairie dwellers!

Eastern cottontail

Eastern Cottontails are found throughout the eastern and southern US, Canada, and even parts of Mexico and South America. They are compact members of the rabbit group and sport the large hind feet and long ears common to their relatives. They are reddish or greyish brown on top and white underneath and have a short and fluffy white tail, the “cottontail” in their common name. They often become more drab in the winter and replace their brown fur with grey that blends in with the bleak surroundings more effectively.

Like other rabbits, Eastern Cottontails prefer open grassy areas and old fields surrounded by brushy habitat. They like to forage in open areas, but because they do not dig burrows, they require brushy areas to protect themselves from predators and will dash into shrubs, hedges, or brushpiles when threatened. They are known to eat a variety of food, though they are largely herbivorous and only occasionally eat insects or other animals. During the summer, Eastern Cottontails feed primarily on grasses and other herbaceous plants, and are sometimes known to venture into agricultural fields to feed on crops. In the winter when most of the green plant material disappears for a few months, they will switch their diet and feed on the twigs, buds, and bark of woodier plants. Regardless of the season, rabbits do not digest their plant-based diet very effectively and they produce two types of fecal pellets to ensure proper digestion. The green pellets consist of partly digested plant matter and are re-consumed by the rabbits so that they can complete digestion of the materials they contain. Brown pellets are mostly waste and are not eaten by the rabbits after they have been expelled.

Most rabbits do not live very long and Eastern Cottontails are no exception with an average lifespan of just 15 months in the wild. The primary source of mortality for Eastern Cottontails is predation and they are fed on by many animals, including foxes, coyotes, bobcats, domestic dogs and cats, raccoons, owls, hawks, and snakes. Rabbit meat is enjoyed by some people and they are one of the most commonly hunted animals in the US. Because many open fields are along roads, they also frequently succumb to collisions by cars.

Scientists have estimated that only 20% of the entire Eastern Cottontail population survives each year, though the rabbits that do survive are more than capable of rebuilding the population. Like other rabbits, Eastern Cottontail breeding is promiscuous and the males are not involved in rearing young. After a brief mating, the male rabbits will move on, often mating with other females. Once pregnant, a female Eastern Cottontail will dig a small, shallow hole in a protected space in a brushy area and line it with soft plants and fur. After a 28 day gestation period, a litter of blind, fine-haired kits are born. Their eyes open in less than a week and they are weaned and become independent after another 3-4 weeks, dispersing from the nest just 7 weeks after their birth. Most females will breed the spring after their birth, but some that are born early in the year will begin producing litters the same year. Female Eastern Cottontails can have up to 7 litters of 12 kits in a year, but more typically have 3-4 litters with an average of 5 kits each.

You’re most likely to see Eastern Cottontails shortly before Prairie Ridge closes in the afternoon as they are crepuscular (late afternoon-early evening) or nocturnal feeders, but you can often see them other times as well. Look out for medium-sized brown shapes on the trails alongside the prairie and you may see a rabbit munching on grasses. Step too close and it will dart into the prairie and disappear! They are on the grounds all year and you could potentially see an Eastern Cottontail even in the middle of winter, but this has been a boom year for bunnies at Prairie Ridge. Now is one of the best opportunities you’ll have to see one, so wander down the Prairie Trail soon to have a great chance to see one!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photo by Chris Goforth

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