Species spotlight: Cottontail rabbits

The cottontail rabbit is the most common wild rabbit in North America.

Small game hunters love the eastern cottontail

Cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are the most common rabbits in North America. Wildlife biologists refer to them as New World rabbits, because they were first discovered during the settling of the United States and Canada.

Cottontails live in meadows and shrubby areas. They prefer areas that have a mix of open land and dense shrubs, allowing them to graze and lounge while also having quick escape routes nearby.

During winter, when natural cover is less abundant, cottontail rabbits will spend more time in open areas, but still prefer some type of structure nearby such as weedy edges around fence lines, woody cover or rock walls.

Cottontails are chunky, brownish-red or grayish-brown, have large hind feet, short fluffy tails and long ears. The average cottontail weighs about 2.5 pounds.

Small game hunters are fond of these rabbits, which are plentiful, and offer challenging shots as they run in circles and zig-zag patterns looking for an escape route. They are often hunted with dogs, which are trained at keeping track of the wily animlas. Cottontails can reach speeds up to 18 miles per hour.

Cottontails breed according to weather. In some states, they can breed during any month of the year. Most females begin breeding at about three months of age, and they can have up to seven litters in a year, with each litter consisting of one to twelve babies, which are called kits.

What they eat

Their diets consist almost exclusively of vegetation, but they sometimes eat small grubs. They seem to have different preferences throughout the U.S., depending on what is available in their local areas. Agricultural crops are high on the list of cottontails in some states, but in other states, these rabbits stick mostly to wild plants and seeds. During winter, they often eat tree bark when few other choices are available.

Cottontail rabbits must contend with many predators, including domestic cats and dogs. Coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, minks, owls, hawks and even snakes consume rabbits. Many are also killed by vehicles, especially during early spring when roadside vegetation turns green, attracting them before any other vegetation in the wild is ripe.

Their average lifespan in the wild is 15 months. Captive cottontails have been known to live as long as 5 years.

These rabbits are sometimes referred to as “hillbilly rabbits.”

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