Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

Kingdom
Phylum
Subphylum
Class
Order
Family
Genus
SPECIES
Sylvilagus floridanus
Population size
Unknown
Life Span
3-5 yrs
TOP SPEED
29 km/h
WEIGHT
800-2,000 g
LENGTH
36-48 cm

The Eastern cottontail is the most common rabbit species in North America. It is chunky, red-brown, or gray-brown in appearance, with large hind feet, long ears, and a short, fluffy white tail. Its underside fur is white. There is a rusty patch on the tail. Its appearance differs from that of a hare in that it has a brownish-gray coloring around the head and neck. The body is lighter in color with a white underside on the tail. It has large brown eyes and large ears to see and listen for danger. In winter the cottontail's pelage is more gray than brown. The kits develop the same coloring after a few weeks, but they also have a white blaze that goes down their forehead; this marking eventually disappears.

Distribution

Eastern cottontails can be found in the eastern and south-central United States, southern Canada, eastern Mexico, Central America, and northernmost South America. They are abundant in Midwest North America and have been found in New Mexico and Arizona. Eastern cottontails prefer open grassy areas, clearings, and meadows supporting abundant green grasses and herbs, with shrubs in the area or edges for cover. They are usually found in and around farms including fields, pastures, open woods, thickets associated with fencerows, wooded thickets, forest edges, and suburban areas with adequate food and cover. They are also found in swamps and marshes and usually avoid dense and deep woods.

Eastern Cottontail habitat map

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Eastern cottontails are solitary and very territorial animals. They are active year-round and typically live in one home range throughout their lifetime. They prefer an area where they can hide quickly but be out in the open. Eastern cottontails do not dig burrows, but rather rest in a form, a shallow, scratched-out depression in a clump of grass or under brush. They may use the dens of groundhogs as a temporary home or during heavy snow. Eastern cottontails are crepuscular to nocturnal feeders and although they usually spend most of the daylight hours resting in their forms, they can be seen at any time of day. They are most active when visibility is limited, such as rainy or foggy nights. Eastern cottontails usually move only short distances, and they may remain sitting very still for up to 15 minutes at a time. When chased, they run in a zigzag pattern, reaching up to 18 mph (29 km/h).

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Eastern cottontails are herbivores (graminivores, folivores, frugivores); their diet is varied and largely dependent on availability. In summer, they consume fruits and tender green herbaceous vegetation when it is available such as clovers, crabgrasses, alfalfa, bluegrasses, quackgrass, crabgrasses, redtop, plantains, chickweed, and dandelion. During the dormant season, or when green vegetation is covered with snow, they consume twigs, buds, and bark of woody vegetation. Eastern cottontails also consume many domestic crops.

Mating Habits

MATING BEHAVIOR
REPRODUCTION SEASON
February-September
PREGNANCY DURATION
25-35 days
BABY CARRYING
1-12 kittens
INDEPENDENT AGE
4-5 weeks
FEMALE NAME
doe
MALE NAME
buck
BABY NAME
kitten, bunny

Eastern cottontails are polygynous meaning that males mate with more than one female. The breeding season varies depending on the location and the elevation but generally occurs between February and September. During this time males fight each other to establish a dominance hierarchy and mating priority. Females construct their nests alone; these are slanting holes dug in soft soil and lined with vegetation and white fur from their underside. Females can have 1 to 7 litters of 1 to 12 young, in a year; however, they average 3 to 4 litters per year, and the average number of kits is 5. The gestation period lasts around 25-35 days. The young are born with a very fine coat of hair and are blind. Their eyes begin to open in 4-7 days. Females do not stay in the nest with their kits but return to the opening of the nest to nurse, usually twice a day. Young begin to move out of the nest for short trips by 12 to 16 days and are completely weaned and independent by 4 to 5 weeks. Litters usually disperse at about 7 weeks and reproductive maturity occurs at about 2 to 3 months of age.

Population

Population threats

Although Eastern cottontails are not currently threatened they suffer from changes in their habitat, predation, and hunting pressure. In some areas of their range, these rabbits are threatened by livestock competition and collisions with automobiles.

Population number

The IUCN Red List and other sources don’t provide the number of the Eastern cottontail total population size. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Eastern cottontails are named for their short and fluffy tails that look like cotton.
  • Rabbits have almost a 360-degree vision and are able to see behind them. Despite that, they have one blind spot which is located right in front of their nose.
  • When feeding cottontail rabbits typically only use their nose to move and adjust the position of the food that they place directly in front of their front paws on the ground. Cottontails will also turn the food with their nose to find the cleanest part of the vegetation (free of sand and inedible parts) to begin their meal. The only time cottontails use their front paws while feeding is when vegetation is above their head on a living plant; in this case, they will lift their paw to bend the branch to bring the food within reach.
  • Cottontails are rarely come out of their burrows to feed on windy days because the wind interferes with their hearing capabilities. Hearing an incoming predator before they get close enough to attack is the primary defense mechanism of cottontail rabbits.
  • To escape predation Eastern cottontails will run fast in a zig-zag pattern, move low to the ground with their ears laid back to avoid detection or will freeze and stay motionless.

References

1. Eastern Cottontail on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_cottontail
2. Eastern Cottontail on The IUCN Red List site - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/41299/45191626

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