The eastern cottontail is a typical rabbit with long ears and hind legs. The tail is short, fluffy, 30-70 mm (1.2-2.8 in) in length, brown above and white below. Except for the rust colored nape, the upper parts of the body and chest are pinkish or reddish to grayish brown sprinkled with black. The underparts are white to grayish white. The large protruding brown eyes are encircled with white or buff. A white or light brown spot or blaze is present on the forehead. Adults are 380-461 mm (15-18 in) in length and weigh approximately 825-1350 g (1.8-3.0 lb). Females are slightly larger than males. The eastern cottontail is smaller than the snowshoe hare and does not develop a white winter coat.
(Slyvilagus floridanus Allen)From: Saunders, D. A. 1988. Adirondack Mammals. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 216pp.
The New England cottontail (S. transitionalis Bangs) is a possible current resident of the eastern and southern Adirondacks. The most recent records of this species for the park are from 1930. This rabbit is reliably distinguished from the eastern cottontail only by skull characteristics.
Range and Habitat
The eastern cottontail is found in some parts of southern Canada, in Mexico, and Central America, and most of the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. except for northern New England. The cottontail occurs in southern, eastern, and northern lowland areas of the Adirondack Park. It is, like the opossum, a recent resident of these areas. The northward and eastward expansion of the range is a response to the advent of agriculture, and possibly to the many introductions by state and private agencies during the first half of this century.
Whereas the snowshoe hare inhabits dense coniferous forests, even at the highest elevations, the eastern cottontail thrives in deciduous forest clearings and edges, meadows, farmlands, brushy fields, the edges of swamps and marshes, and residential areas, generally at elevations below 300 m (1000 ft). Forms (shallow depressions worn or scratched in the soil and located in thick vegetation or brush piles) and at times, hollow logs or the unused burrows of other mammals, provide shelter for the cottontail; it does not dig burrows.
Food and Feeding Behavior
The eastern cottontail is an herbivore, and eats a wide variety of plant parts, but prefers green vegetation. Grasses and legumes are favorites. However, cottontails also consume many broad-leaved herbaceous species such as plantains, goldenrods, and dandelions. In orchards and farmlands, corn and apples that have fallen to the ground are important foods in late summer, autumn and winter until covered by fallen snow. The buds, twigs and bark of woody vegetation may form the bulk of the diet during heavy snow cover. Maples, birches, oaks, willows, sumacs and raspberries are some of the plants cottontails select in the winter, at times standing on their hind legs to reach the lower branches of saplings and shrubs. Eastern cottontail may eat their own soft green droppings as they are expelled, apparently to recover additional nutrients, and possibly vitamins manufactured during the first passage of vegetation through the alimentary canal.
Activity and Movement
Eastern cottontails are most active at twilight and on moonlit nights, spending the daylight hours resting in forms. Extreme cold and rain may temporarily curtail activity. Hopping is the primary means of movement, with travel often along the same route or pathway. Cottontails flee predators by combining leaping, in which they cover 1.5-4.6 m (5-15 ft), with hopping, and by changing directions suddenly until reaching protective cover. During their escape, cottontails may travel 29 km/h (18 mph) for brief periods. Remaining motionless and relying on their cryptic coloration is another common predator avoidance behavior.
The breeding season is from February or March until September. Females produce multiple litters in this period, usually 4 or 5. The gestation period is about 28-30 days, the length varying slightly with litter size, which ranges from 3-8 (average of 4-5). A females bears her young in a shallow depression that she scratches in the soil and lines with her own fur and shredded, dried vegetation a few days before the birth of the litter. Newborn cottontails are blind, weigh 25-28 g (1 oz) and have some guard hairs present or a thin coat of fine, gray fur. The female visits her young at dawn and at dusk to permit them to nurse, and covers them with part of the nest lining before leaving. Females with litters usually remain within the vicinity of the nests, and may attack animals that approach a litter, rushing at intruders and raking them with the sharp claws of the hind feet. The eyes of the young open within a week after birth. By 16 days of age, the young begin to make short excursions from the nest and sample nearby vegetation. They continue to nurse for another week or two before dispersing. Cottontails from spring litters may breed during their first summer, but most young are sexually mature the following spring. Potential longevity is at least 10 years, but few survive beyond 15 months.
The eastern cottontail is an important component in the diets of many carnivorous animals. Red-tails hawks, great horned owls, foxes, coyotes, weasels, bobcats and minks are some of their main predators.
- Social system - The eastern cottontail is solitary except when mating or raising young. Adults may form social hierarchies, an outcome of aggressive encounters involving chasing and submission, rarely fighting. Dominants displace subordinates. Dominant males do most of the breeding, but they do not maintain pair bonds nor aid in the care of the young. Adult cottontails occupy home ranges which may overlap those of neighbors. Home range size varies with sex, age, and season, but is generally 0.95-2.8 ha (2.3-7 acres), occasionally 6-40 ha (15-100 acres) where food and cover are poor. The home ranges of males are usually larger. Densities of eastern and Midwestern populations may reach 8-10 cottontails per ha (2.5 per acre) in optimal habitat.
- Communication - Cottontails employ a mixture of visual, chemical, tactile, vocal, and mechanical cues in social interactions. Adults “thump” the ground with their hind feet, perhaps as an alarm signal. Females may gather their young by grunting; young squeal or squall when separated from litter mates. Cottontails give a high-pitched scream or distress call when injured or captured. Ritualized motor patterns and posturing are common among interactions of adults, for example, in male-female encounters during courtship. Prior to mating, pairs engage in chasing with frequent reversals, leaping, and dashing - the male rushing at the female and urinating on or toward her. In aggressive contexts, females threaten by crouching, raising the chin, and depressing the ears. Dominant males respond to the approach of subordinates by raising the hind quarters and elevating the ears. In some encounters, males may rub vegetation with the corner of the eye. Anal glands probably mark forms and coat droppings with substances that convey information.
Chapman, J. A., J. G. Hockman, and M. M. Ojeda C. 1980. Sylvilagus floridanus. Mammalian Species 136:8
Hamilton, W. J. 1940. Breeding habits of the cottontail rabbit in New York State. Journal of Mammalogy, 21:8-11.