Marian’s Wildlife Blog – July 2017

Eastern Cottontail by Marian Harman

Most of us enjoy seeing cottontail rabbit families in our yards (unless they are nibbling on our lettuce, of course). They’re definitely cute. The bunnies we see in our yard are almost certainly the hybrid Eastern Cottontail. The “real” New England Cottontail has become threatened here due to loss of habitat. It is very difficult to distinguish New England cottontails from Eastern cottontails. The native New Englanders are a bit smaller, and have ears trimmed with fine black fur. They lack the white forehead spots common on Eastern Cottontails.

The historic range of the New England Cottontail has always been small; southern Maine and New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and south to Rhode Island. These rabbits depend on small early succession forest patches within a larger habitat of forest and shrub wetlands. They eat the shrubby undergrowth that abounds in young forests. It is thought that historically they thrived in habitats along waterways, disturbed by hurricanes or fires. But due to development, forest fire suppression, and the introduction of alien invasive shrubs such as autumn olive, barberry and honeysuckle, New England Cottontails have lost 80 % of their former habitat. They are listed as threatened in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, endangered in New Hampshire and Maine, and extirpated from Vermont.

A recent article by nature writer Ted Williams entitled “Recovery: Second Chance for Yankee Cottontails” appeared June 7, 2017 in a Nature Conservancy blog called Cool Green Science. Williams states that the Eastern Cottontail is a hybrid mixture of cottontail breeds. It was introduced repeatedly from the late 1800’s through 1970 by hunting clubs and fish and wildlife services, and is so hearty that it has outcompeted our native cottontail. New England Cottontails are dependent on early successional forest, which we have pretty much run out of in New England. Eastern Cottontails, however, do well in all habitats, especially suburban yards and edges.   read more…