Eastern Cottontail Dossier

by Carl Strang

My species dossiers focus on vertebrate animals, and as there are many more birds than other terrestrial vertebrates, most of the dossiers I have shared had avian subjects. Today’s focus is a mammal.

Cottontail, Eastern

These live in weedy and brushy habitat. Occasionally enter forests, especially in fall and winter. Maintain a network of trails and runs. Have aboveground forms or beds used for much of the year, but take cover in sheltered spots (in firewood pile at Warrenville, IL, for instance, during daytime in a neighborhood with little cover) and in burrows (woodchuck burrows at Culver’s fish ponds, skunk burrow at Willowbrook), and culverts. Predators may influence this: in winter of 1998-99, cottontails seldom appeared in the open, but coyotes were omnipresent and often dug at ends of drainage culverts under the nature trail, where rabbit tracks led.

Cottontail nest, opened slightly to show hairless infant.

Young born blind and hairless. Nest in short grass areas (e.g., lawns, examples seen at Boiling Springs, PA, and in IL), in shallow depression lined and covered with a mix of fur and grass. Nest well hidden. Young become independent when about 4 inches long, when ears stand up and fur becomes shaggy. Mother simply abandons nest (normally she visits it only at night), young find their way out. Observed a youngster at Lombard, IL, learning to recognize food. Sniffed every plant, occasionally nibbling one, occasionally chewing one down to ground. Can be tame and easily caught first day or two out of nest.

Summer food green plants, for instance dandelions (watched one at Boiling Springs, PA, as it ate fruiting stalks, biting them off near ground then nibbling them into mouth endwise, seed poofing out as it reached the end). Browses in winter. In DuPage County, rose family preferred (or at least eaten first, then when other foods depleted, larger rose and Rubus stems cut to bring twig ends within reach), others eaten include twigs of maple, elm, bittersweet Solanum dulcamara, poison ivy (the last toward winter’s end). Patches of red to orange urine at this time. Bark of cherry, elm, sumac, taken in leaner winters.

Often the toenail marks are the only clear indicators of a cottontail track. The furry feet do not make a clear impression in hard soil.

Droppings distinctive, round. Tracks occasionally show the 4 nailed toes in good conditions. Hard substrates sometimes reveal 4 toenail marks in wedge shaped pattern. In snow, typically nothing more than round depressions for front feet, elongate ones for hind feet. Rarely anything but a gallop gait with one front foot in front of the other.

16AP86. Rabbits eating gray dogwood bark in Willowbrook Back 40, both of standing shrubs and of stems I cut earlier this week.

9JL86. Watched a half-grown cottontail through the window at Willowbrook as it grazed. Seemed to select younger grass blades (pointed rather than mower-cut; lighter in color).

9FE87. Inside Willowbrook main building, cottontail escaped from intensive care room during night. Droppings and smears of dust suggest that it got into the clinic, somehow got up onto 3 foot high counter top, then another 4 feet up to cabinet top. [I asked Tom Brown about this; he has seen even higher vertical leaps onto ledges by cottontails].

This is the cottontail that escaped in the Willowbrook Wildlife Center hospital and hid by jumping from the floor to the countertop, then from the countertop to the top of the wall cabinet.

12FE87. Cottontail recently gnawed on crabapple beside trail.

15MR87. Meacham Grove. Rabbit moving fast, but turning: the space between the front feet and hind feet decreased as it approached the turning point, revealing a slight deceleration; the front feet pointed in the direction it had been going, then the hind feet pointed in the new direction. This rabbit placed its front feet side by side. The distance between the front and hind tracks was not related to the distance of the leap: large and small for long and short hops. I tracked this rabbit to its hiding place, partly under a log in open woods. I had passed within 8 feet of him twice, then stood 3 feet away for at least 2 minutes puzzling over tracks that seemed to go into there but not out, when he burst from hiding and ran away. The rabbit had climbed up on sticks and logs a few times (crossways to his route).

A typical cottontail footprint pattern with the more elongate hind footprints side by side, rounder front footprints one before the other. In each step the hind feet carry past the front feet.

MY87, NJ Pine Barrens. Cottontail browsing blueberries, oaks.

AU87, NJ Pine Barrens. Cottontails smaller here than elsewhere.

12AU87. Assateague Island, morning. Young cottontail eating clovers (several patches well nibbled, English plantain flower stalks, a wiry upright narrow-leafed composite, and another plant that resembled common ragweed. Avoided the abundant Senecio. Had several ticks in its ears, and appeared to have a partial cataract in the right eye.

18DE87. 4 days after an abrupt 1-foot snowfall, little but rabbit and squirrel tracks in Willowbrook Back 40. Former’s mainly at edge of field and woods.

23JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Rabbits and foxes highly active last night (an inch of snow fell just after sunset). One rabbit, at least, was in underground burrow during snow. Unusual amount of side-by-side front foot placement by rabbits: slippery or uncertain new surface? One rabbit fed on grasses, edge of a tall grass field.

On slippery or unfamiliar surfaces (e.g., the first snow of the season), cottontails often lock their front feet together side by side. I assume this gives them more stability. You can see in the dossier text when I discovered this.

27JA88. Willowbrook. A rabbit had moved along left edge of path, paused and looked back down path over right shoulder. Both front feet to right of their usual position and pivoted, right foot 45 degrees. This is enough to allow the rabbit to look behind it (eyes on sides of head).

28JA88. Willowbrook. A rabbit did heavy browsing on a rose bush last night.

3FE88. Willowbrook. In the 2 nights since the last snow, not real cold, lots of activity. Rabbits, squirrels, mice, fox, raccoons, cats. Icy beneath. Again, lots of rabbit track sets with side by side front footprints.

LateFE88. Tracker Farm, NJ. Rabbit browsed rose since 1 JA.

6JE88. Baby rabbit tasting rocks, licking them, in Willowbrook streambed. Ate silver maple seed, elm seedling.

13DE88. Rabbits commonly placing front feet side by side on longer steps after about an inch of snow fell early last night atop the half inch that was there from 3 days previous.

1MR89. Rabbit’s front feet indicate the direction from which it came more reliably than the hind feet point to where it’s going, at least when it is traveling slowly. Look to pressure releases as well. In today’s crusty snow, the rabbit leans in the direction it’s going, so that in forward hops the toes are deepest. In an abrupt left turn the left edges of both hind prints were deepest.

12MR89. Hartz Lake. Dense poison ivy area between cemetery and prairie heavily browsed recently, mainly by rabbits.

25AP89. A rabbit nest, now empty with lining scattered. In the low, flattened blackberry tangle beside the nature trail at Willowbrook. Scattered taller brush on all sides.

These baby cottontails are weaned or nearly so. The mother simply stops coming to the nest and the young, driven by instinct and hunger, leave the nest and start learning which plants are good to eat.

3MY89. Willowbrook. Another rabbit nest yesterday on the side of the hill constructed of fill from marsh excavation. Like the nest last summer on the steep hillside at Clarks’, this hole was deep.

4MY89. Willowbrook. Yet another rabbit nest, this one in fairly thick brush 5 feet beyond the cleared edge of the main trail.

9MY89. I mistook moss for a cottontail. Sometimes the agouti pattern resembles mossy mottling.

22JE89. Rabbits eating common ragweed at Willowbrook.

31JL89. Willowbrook. Rabbits bending down Queen Anne’s lace and common ragweed and eating tops, along Nature Trail.

18AU89. Cottontails reaching common ragweed tips 4 feet off ground. Apparently, from bruise patterns and broken stems, they are pulling the plants down.

24NO89. Hartz Lake. Rabbit stopped, sat, turned. Entire left edges of both hind feet show pressure releases.

13DE89. Hartz Lake. No consistent ratio of track-set length to space between sets. A ratio of 3-4 common in shallow snow (front feet side by side, mostly). Degree of forward lean or toe-dig of back feet a better indicator of step length.

16FE90. Rabbit sitting on top of snow in Warrenville, IL, back yard, out of reach of anything edible, chewing cud. Bent down a couple of times to get feces for re-ingesting, taking them from anus with mouth.

16MY90. Rabbits have been eating fleabane tops.

12SE90. Watched young (nearly full grown) cottontail feeding, at close range. Eyes cranked forward, showing the tiniest bit of white at the back, as the rabbit examined and ate plants. Ate fruits and leaf blades of roadside rush and crabgrass. Seemed, however, to be using smell more than vision in checking out potential foods. I could get away with some movement when the eyes moved forward.

5JL96. Cottontails chasing each other 11a.m., picnic shelter area at Willowbrook. The chases were brief, sometimes extending into brush, but generally about 20 yards at most and often half that. They then would stop as the pursuer peeled off, but then often the chased animal approached, clearly soliciting another chase. Sometimes the chases were moderate in speed only, sometimes there were brief very fast spurts in the middle.

16MY98. Cottontail at Willowbrook eating blue violet leaves (nearby: flowering motherwort mint, garlic mustard).

28JA99. Cottontails this winter not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out or, perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10MY99. Cedar Springs, Michigan. Cottontails mating. Smaller adult chased larger, caught up, mounted and very quick small thrusts for a couple of seconds, then larger ran away and pursuit resumed. In woods clearing.

Here a mother rabbit at Mayslake covers her nest shortly after giving birth.

29AP09. Mayslake. As I drove in, I saw a rabbit digging in the lawn of the long parking lot island beside the drive. Three other rabbits were nearby, and one eventually chased her away from where she was digging and I saw him mate with her once. I thought she was still digging soil, but perhaps she was digging out grasses to cover the nest with (supported by her relative skinniness in photos). I returned at mid-day, found 5-6 babies in the nest there. Soil still beside the nest, but flattened. Babies born last night or this morning, it appears. (These rabbits eventually weaned and left the successful nest).

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