The Eastern Cottontail is the most common rabbit in North America. The eastern cottontail is found from southern Manitoba and Quebec to Central and northwestern South America. In the contiguous United States, the eastern cottontail ranges from the east to the Great Plains in the west.
The Eastern Cottontail identified by its red brown or grey brown body color, large hind feet, long ears, white belly, short fluffy white tail and a reddish-brown patch on the back of its neck.
Cottontails are found in meadows and shrubby areas of eastern and southwestern United States, southern Canada, eastern Mexico and California. Currently, the eastern cottontail prefers edge environments between woody vegetation and open land. Its range of habitats includes meadows, orchards, farmlands, hedgerows and areas with second growth shrubs, vines and low deciduous trees.
Very territorial and aggressive, the eastern cottontail can leap into the air up to fifteen feet. When on the look out for predators, they will stand on their back feet to watch for coyotes, foxes, weasels, eagles and hawks. When running from predators, they will often leap from side to side to break its scent trail.
Adult eastern cottontails reach a length of 15.55 to 18.78 in and 1.76 to 3.37 lb. Females may be slightly larger than males. A dense, buffy brown underfur and longer, coarser gray- and black-tipped guard hairs cover the back of the eastern cottontail. Its rump and flanks are gray, and it has a prominent reddish-brown patch on its nape. The ventral surface is white. The eastern cottontail shows the white underside of its short tail when it is running. This rabbit undergoes two molts per year. The spring molt, lasting from mid-April to mid-July, leaves a short summer coat that is more brown. From mid-September to the end of October, the change to longer, grayer pelage occurs for winter. The eastern cottontail has four pairs of mammary glands. It also has distinctive large eyes for its size. The Eastern cottontail has large eyes that protrude from either side of the head, giving it almost 180º vision. It does have a blind spot directly in front of its face, so cottontails often look at things with their head slightly turned to one side. In the wild, a cottontail will live to be about 4 years old, but in captivity may live to be 10 years old.
A mating pair performs an interesting ritual before copulation. This usually occurs after dark. The buck chases the doe until she eventually turns and faces him. She then spars at him with her forepaws. They crouch, facing each other, until one of the pair leaps about 2 feet in the air. This behavior is repeated by both animals before mating.
The beginning of reproductive activity in the eastern cottontail is related to the onset of the adult molt. Sexual maturity occurs around 2 to 3 months. An average of 25% of young are produced by juveniles (Banfield, 1981). Bucks are in breeding condition by mid-February and are active until September. Does are polyoestrus, with their first heat occurring in late February. The time of initial reproductive activity varies with latitude and elevation, occurring later at higher conditions of both. The onset of breeding is also controlled by temperature, availability of succulent vegetation and the change in photoperiod (Chapman et al., 1980).
Does can have anywhere from 1 to 7 litters per year, but average 3 to 4. Gestation is typically between 25 and 28 days. A few days before the birth of her young, the doe prepares a grass and fur-lined nest. The nest is usually in a hollow beneath a shrub or a log or in tall grass. Litter size varies from 1 to 12 neonates with an average of 5. The newborns weigh 25 to 35 g, and are blind and naked. The young grow rapidly, initially about 2.5 g a day. The young grow rapidly on the mother’s milk, which is 13% butterfat. By the end of the first week, the young will by fully furred, able to open their eyes, and move around. By the end of the second week, the young will begin to leave their nest area for short periods of time. By the end of the third week, the young will be entirely weaned. At the end of seven weeks, they will leave the nest. The litter receives minimal care from their mother; they are nursed once or twice daily. Weaning occurs between 16 and 22 days. Litter mates become intolerant of each other and disperse at around seven weeks. The doe mates soon after her first litter, and she is often near the end of gestation as the current litter is leaving the nest.
Eastern cottontails are solitary animals, and they tend to be intolerant of each other. Their home range is dependent on terrain and food supply. It is usually between 5 and 8 acres, increasing during the breeding season. Males generally have a larger home range than females. The eastern cottontail has keen senses of sight, smell and hearing. It is crepuscular and nocturnal, and is active all winter. During daylight hours, the eastern cottontail remains crouched in a hollow under a log or in a thicket or brushpile. Here it naps and grooms itself. The cottontail sometimes checks the surroundings by standing on its hind legs with its forepaws tucked next to its chest.
Eastern cottontails are crepuscular, active between 4:30 am and 7 am, and then again at 5 pm until dark. The Eastern cottontail will spend most of its daylight hours in a form, unless harsh weather forces it to seek better shelter. The form is a well-hidden spot beneath a grass clump or in a thicket. In the winter, forms are usually on the sunny southern faces of hills. Frequently-used forms will have the vegetation of the floor worn away. Grasses may meet overhead, forming a kind of roof. Within the form, the rabbit cannot be seen, but is able to detect danger.
Although the Eastern cottontail is capable of digging burrows, it does not. Burrows represent the possibility of being trapped in a dead-end. Weasels are more comfortable in burrows than cottontails, and so if there are any weasels in the area, the cottontail will absolutely never use a burrow. If a cottontail is found in a burrow, it is usually in wintertime and in a burrow that has been abandoned by another animal. The cottontail will site about 6 ft away from the entrance of the burrow, in enough to be warm and close enough to the exit to flee at the first sign of danger.
Escape methods of the eastern cottontail include freezing and/or “flushing”. Flushing consists of escaping to cover by a rapid and zig-zag series of bounds. The cottontail is a quick runner and can reach speeds up to 18 miles per hour. Vocalizations of the eastern cottontail include distress cries (to startle an enemy and warn others of danger), squeals (during copulation) and grunts (if predators approach a nesting doe and her litter). Eastern cottontails are short-lived; most do not survive beyond their third year. Enemies include hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, weasels and man.
Whenever the Eastern cottontail senses danger, it will immediately escape onto one of its well-tended paths. A cottontail bounds, rather than runs. In a bound, the front feet come down, one in front of another, and then the hind feet come down side-by-side in front of the front feet. The rabbit may cover up to 15 feet in a single bound, reaching a top speed of about 20 mph. It will often move from side to side, making a zigzag pattern to break up its scent trail. Occasionally, it will make an extra-high leap in order to observe what is going on around it.
Communication and Perception
Eastern cottontails have excellent vision, hearing, and sense of smell. Eastern cottontails make many sounds. They have cries of worry that are used to startle an enemy and warn others of danger. They grunt if predators approach a nesting female and her litter. They also make squeals during mating.
The eastern cottontail is a vegetarian, with the majority of its diet made up of complex carbohydrates and cellulose. The digestion of these substances is made possible by caecal fermentation. The cottontail must reingest fecal pellets to reabsorb nutrients from its food after this process. Their diet varies between seasons due to availability. In the summer, green plants are favored. About 50% of the cottontail’s intake is grasses, including bluegrass and wild rye. Other summer favorites are wild strawberry, clover and garden vegetables. In the winter, the cottontail subsists on woody plant parts, including the twigs, bark and buds of oak, dogwood, sumac, maple and birch. As the snow accumulates, cottontails have access to the higher trunk and branches. Feeding activity peaks 2-3 hours after dawn and the hour after sunset.
The Eastern cottontail has an extremely varied diet. Summer foods include, but are not limited to: poison ivy, bluegrass, crabgrass, other grasses, broad-leafed plants, all berries, all fruits, cultivated crops (wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, clover, lettuce, cabbage beans), weeds (goldenrod, yarrow), wild shrubs, sheep shorrel, wild cherry, and the bark of most trees.
A favorite winter food of the Eastern cottontail is sumac, because its roots are high in fat. A cottontail will dig through snow to reach food, but will not dig through dirt. It meets its water requirements by eating snow, dew, and plants with high water contents.
Eastern cottontails can escape predators with their fast, jumping form of locomotion. They can run at speeds of up to 18 miles per hour. They will either flush, freeze, or slink to escape danger. Flushing is a fast, zig-zag dash to an area of cover. Slinking is moving low to the ground with the ears laid back to avoid detection. Freezing is simply remaining motionless. The cottontail is always intimately familiar with every aspect of its range, and maintains escape paths by chewing away obtrusive bushes, branches, and grasses.