Eastern cottontail rabbits are mammals that belong to the Leporidae family of rabbits and hares. The eastern cottontail bunny is so named for its distinctive tail, which looks like a white puff of cotton when raised.
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The eastern cottontail rabbit is a midsize rabbit that generally resides throughout eastern North America, from Canada to Mexico. The cottontail bunny eats plants, is most active at dusk and dawn, and provides a major link in food webs. Cottontail rabbits cannot be tamed.
General Cottontail Rabbit Facts
The eastern cottontail rabbit scientific name is Sylvilagus floridanus. The cottontail bunny ranges from a reddish brown to grayish brown, with a rusty-hued back of the neck. Its abdomen may be white or pale gray. Some cottontail bunnies have stars, or blazes, which are white shapes on their foreheads. The cottontail bunny possesses disproportionately large brown eyes ringed by white or cream-colored fur. The earthy shades of their fur help cottontail rabbits blend into their environment. In winter, their fur grows in length and becomes grayer in tone. This midsized rabbit ranges from 14 to 19 inches in length, with a tail ranging from as long as 3 inches. The cottontail bunny weighs from 2 to just over 3 pounds. Females tend to be larger than males.
Cottontail rabbits are herbivores, eating different plants based on the season and the environment. They prefer grasses, wheat, clover, timothy, sedges and plants cultivated by humans. In winter, cottontail rabbits may consume twigs, buds and sprouts. These rabbits consume fallen fruits such as apples, or fallen corn, in autumn. Cottontail rabbit fecal matter resembles small pellets, and occasionally rabbits will eat their own feces in order to gain additional nutrition missed in their initial digestion.
Cottontail rabbits possess sharp senses of hearing, eyesight and smell. This aids in their protection from predators. A cottontail bunny normally moves about in hops, but if frightened, it will either freeze in place or run as fast as 18 miles per hour to try to escape predators. Cottontail rabbits may use an evasive zig-zag pattern as they run. Cottontail rabbits communicate by thumping their hind feet on the ground, making various vocalizations and screaming at a high pitch if captured. In the wild, cottontail rabbits may live as long as three years, but many perish much sooner. Cottontail rabbits are more active in the evening or at dawn. Cottontail rabbits do not hibernate.
Cottontail Rabbit Habitat and Distribution
The cottontail bunny resides throughout the eastern part of North America, ranging from the United States and southern Canada to eastern Mexico and Central America. Smaller populations reside in the American Southwest. Cottontail rabbits favor habitats offering some cover to provide protection from the eyes of predators. They venture into meadows, fields and yards to forage. Cottontail rabbits also prefer young deciduous forests. They rest in piles of grass, brush or thickets. Other habitats for the cottontail rabbit include edge environments along swamps and marshes. While the cottontail bunny does not dig burrows, it may use abandoned burrows of other animals.
Cottontail rabbits follow a solitary lifestyle and maintain territories from a few acres to as many as a hundred acres. Females tend to manage smaller ranges.
Breeding Habits of the Cottontail Rabbit
As early as February, breeding season begins for cottontail rabbits. Breeding variables include day length, temperature and food. Cottontail rabbits are polygynous, meaning one male may mate with several females. Courtship between male and female cottontail rabbits tends to occur at dawn and dusk. The males and females will cavort, or chase each other, race, run and sometimes fight as part of their mating ritual.
Cottontail rabbit kids arrive approximately 28 days after the parents mate. Mother rabbits bathe their newborns and place them in a nest, which is an indentation lined with grass, leaves and the mother’s own fur. The mother cottontail bunny leaves them so she can forage but remains nearby to watch for predators. Newborn cottontail rabbit kids possess no fur, are blind and are tiny, weighing under an ounce. However, they grow rapidly, and within a week they open their eyes and grow fur. They begin to forage beyond their nest at two weeks of age. Many cottontail rabbit kids unfortunately fall prey to predators or extreme weather or disease, and do not survive beyond four months old.
The mother rabbit, or doe, may mate again soon after giving birth. Cottontail rabbits can have as many as six litters per summer, but average three or four litters.
Considering a Pet Cottontail Bunny
A number of rabbits make good pets, such as white rabbits and other domesticated rabbits. Unfortunately, the cottontail bunny is a wild animal that remains feral rather than growing tame. They can cause injury to handlers. For these reasons, it is unwise to attempt to try making a pet of a cottontail rabbit.
Ecological Importance of the Cottontail Bunny
Cottontail rabbits provide a major link in their food chain. They consume primary producers such as plants. Cottontail rabbits also comprise the diets of many predator species, such as foxes, owls, hawks, weasels, coyotes and other small predators. When cottontail rabbit populations grow high, their natural predators will take advantage and hunt them instead of taking farm animals. Additionally, keeping cottontail rabbit populations from ballooning prevents their damage to gardens and farms. Human hunters and wild dogs represent additional predators of the cottontail bunny. A healthy cottontail rabbit population leads to a robust food chain.
- University of Michigan BioKIDS Critter Catalog: Eastern Cottontail
- Indiana Department of Natural Resources: Cottontail Rabbit
- State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry: Eastern Cottontail
- The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington: Eastern Cottontail Rabbit
- State of Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection Bureau of Natural Resources Wildlife Division Wildlife Fact Sheet: Cottontail Rabbits
- Missouri Department of Conservation: Eastern Cottontail (Cottontail Rabbit)
About the Author
J. Dianne Dotson is a science writer with a degree in zoology/ecology and evolutionary biology. She spent nine years working in laboratory and clinical research. A lifelong writer, Dianne is also a content manager and science fiction and fantasy novelist. Dianne features science as well as writing topics on her website, jdiannedotson.com.