Eastern Cottontail (Cottontail Rabbit)

Sylvilagus floridanus
Family

Leporidae (rabbits and hares) in the order Lagomorpha

Description

The eastern cottontail is a medium-sized rabbit with long ears, large hind legs, shorter front legs, a short fluffy tail, and soft fur. The upperparts vary from reddish to grayish brown sprinkled with black; when fluffed, the fur of the rump is grayish. The back of the neck is bright rust-colored. The underparts are grayish white except for a brownish chest; the tops of the hind feet are tan to whitish.

Similar species: the only other rabbits in Missouri are the swamp rabbit and black-tailed jackrabbit. Of the two, swamp rabbits are most similar to cottontails, but swamp rabbits are generally larger, with relatively shorter and rounder ears, somewhat coarser fur with a yellowish cast, particularly in the rump, and more black mottling; they have tawny rump fur, visible when fluffed; the tops of the hind feet are reddish brown; and the back of the neck is only slightly rust-colored. Swamp rabbits occur only in southeast Missouri and are an imperilled species in our state. Jackrabbits look very different; they have lanky bodies, with ears, hind legs, and feet very large in proportion to the body. They are endangered within the state of Missouri and may be extirpated.

Size

Total length: 14–19 inches; tail length: 1½–3 inches; weight: 2–3¼ pounds.

cottontail_10-19-2010.jpg

Eastern cottontail rabbit in grassy field
Eastern Cottontail

2975.mp3

Eastern Cottontail
Rabbit Squealing

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

A rabbit sits in a clover-filled yard. One of its ears looks like it has a bite taken out of it. Perhaps it had a narrow escape.
Rabbit in Knox County
Habitat and conservation

Eastern cottontails prefer open brushy or forest-border cover. While they may venture into the open, they usually don’t go far from brushy or dense, weedy cover. The cottontail's usual home is a resting place or form concealed in a dense clump of grass, under a brush pile or in a thicket. Providing good habitat is the key to increasing cottontail populations. To discourage them in gardens and other plantings, try rabbitproof wire and chemical repellents. Cottontails are an important game species.

Foods

Rabbits feed almost entirely on plants. The three most preferred foods during all seasons are bluegrass, wheat, and white clover. Other choice foods, when available, are red clover, Korean lespedeza, small and common crabgrass, timothy, and common chess. Some sedges, forbs, and cultivated plants also are relished. During heavy snow cover, they eat buds, twigs, bark, and sprouts of shrubs, vines, and trees to survive.

image of Eastern Cottontail Rabbit Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common in most years, but numbers fluctuate with availability of cover and habitat. Numbers have been declining since 1955 due to habitat loss.

Life cycle

Breeding season is from mid-February through September. A female could produce eight litters per year, though the average is fewer. Nests are shallow cavities in the ground lined with grass and fur. There are 1–9 young per litter; at birth, they are about 5 inches long, mostly naked, with eyes and ears closed. After a week, they become completely furred and their eyes and ears open. They leave the nest 13–16 days after birth. Most breed for the first time in the spring following their birth.

Human connections

Up to 2 million rabbits are shot for sport annually in Missouri. At 1½ pounds of meat per rabbit, this is a sizeable amount. The fur, however, is not durable and thus has little commercial value.

Ecosystem connections

Many wild carnivores feed on cottontails, and when this source of food is readily available, predation is less on other game species and livestock. By converting plant food into animal matter, rabbits constitute an important link in the food chain of life.

Signs & Tracks

Front track:

  • 1 inch long; generally round overall
  • 4 toes; indistinct.

Hind track:

  • 3½ inches long; generally oblong
  • 4 toes; indistinct.

Other notes:

  • Tracks are positioned in clusters of four, with hind feet side by side about 4 inches apart, and forefeet positioned behind them, with one forefoot ahead of the other.
  • The distance between groups of prints is 1–7 feet, varying with speed and length of hop.
  • Browsing signs include stems of plants cut diagonally, cleanly, by a number of bites.
  • Droppings are spherical, resembling dark brown peas, often seen in piles.
  • Rabbit tracks are often noticed in snow.
  • Urine markings in snow can be orange or reddish and may be mistaken for blood. The color is apparently caused by their diet.
  • Commonly confused with squirrel tracks.
Illustration of eastern cottontail tracks