The cottontail rabbit, Sylvilagus floridanus, is probably our most popular small game animal, and it’s also the wild animal most often seen in towns and suburban areas. Because of its popularity and conspicuousness, the rabbit arouses interest both in those who hunt and those who simply enjoy nature.
The cottontail rabbit is a long-eared, small- to medium-sized mammal of the family Leporidae. It hops when running, because its hind legs are longer than its front legs. A rabbit’s soft fur is brownish above and white below, it has a conspicuous 2-inch-diameter white tail, and some individuals have a small white blaze on the forehead. Cottontails are 15 - 18 inches long and weigh two to three pounds, with females slightly heavier than males.
Preferred habitat includes swamps, thickets, briar patches, weedy fields, brush piles, overgrown fence rows and brushy gullies. Feeding areas are rarely very far from good cover. Rabbits seldom dig dens, preferring to occupy abandoned woodchuck burrows. Home range may be a quarter-acre to 20 acres, depending on the availability of food and cover. An individual rarely leaves its home territory, where it knows food sources, cover and escape routes thoroughly.
Summer foods include leaves, herbs, legumes, fallen fruit, garden vegetables, low broad-leafed weeds, clover and grass; captive wild rabbits have eaten grass equivalent to 42 percent of their weight daily during summer. In winter, cottontails eat blackberry and raspberry canes, bark, buds, tender twigs of bushy plants and poison ivy vines. A rabbit possesses sharp hearing and a keen sense of smell. Its eyes are set well back on the sides of its head, providing a wide field of vision. Rabbits are basically nocturnal, feeding in the evening, at night and in the early morning. Individuals shelter in thick brush or abandoned woodchuck burrows during the day, and they lead solitary lives on their home ranges. Rabbits rely on a burst of speed and a zig-zagging running pattern to evade predators, but they cannot run steadily for long distances. They can swim if they have to.
Cottontail litters are usually born from March through September, with about half the total litters being born in May and June. Litter size ranges from two to nine young, with five the average; the gestation period is about 28 days. Each mature female bears an average of four litters per year. Juvenile females born in early spring are sexually mature and often breed by late summer of the same year. A cup-shaped depression about five inches across and four to six inches deep serves as a nest. It’s lined with dried grasses and fur, which the female plucks from her chest and belly. Young are born blind, naked and helpless, but they develop rapidly and are weaned, fully furred and on their own when 16 days old. The male takes no part in raising the young. Predators, spring floods, heavy rains and farming operations are major causes of nest mortality. Few cottontails live to be more than a year old in the wild, although their potential life span is three to four years. Rabbits are a major food source for many other types of wildlife. Like other heavily preyed upon species, rabbits have an extremely high reproductive rate which maintains adequate populations.