Eastern Cottontail

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Eastern Cottontail
Sylvilagus floridanus
    Class: Mammalia
    Order: Lagomorpha
    Family: Leporidae

Minnesota has one native rabbit the Eastern Cottontail and two hare species the Snowshoe hare and White-tailed jackrabbit. All three belong to an order of mammals called lagomorphs.

The Eastern Cottontail is chunky red-brown or gray-brown in appearance with large hind feet, long ears and a short fluffy white tail. They have a dense, buffy brown underfur and longer, coarser gray- and black-tipped guard hairs cover the back of the rabbit. Its rump and flanks are gray, and it has a prominent rufous patch on its nape. Its belly, chin, tail and inner legs are white. The eastern cottontail shows the white underside of its short tail when it is running. This rabbit undergoes two molts per year. The spring molt, lasting from mid-April to mid-July, leaves a short summer coat that is more brown. From mid-September to the end of October, the change to longer, grayer pelage occurs for winter. Named for the tail's fluffy, white underside, cottontails are smaller than snowshoe hares and jackrabbits. Unlike hares, they do not change fur color with the seasons.

The young develop the same coloring after a few weeks, but they also have a white blaze that goes down their forehead; this marking eventually disappears. The eastern cottontail has four pairs of mammary glands. Cottontails have shorter legs than hares but longer hind legs than fore legs to hop and bound away. They also have larger back paws than the front. They rely mainly on quick, dodging movements to escape predators. If chased, they usually circle within their territory. They can run up to 18 miles per hour and leap up to 15 feet. Eastern cottontails can also swim if necessary.

While hares have long ears, the cottontail's ears are shorter than its head. The cottontail has excellent hearing and can move its ears continuously to detect sounds.

The cottontail has large brown eyes that are set high on its head. Each eye can move more than half a circle. Both eyes together give the cottontail a 360-degree field of view. This full circle of vision helps the rabbit spot overhead predators such as hawks and owls.

The average adult weighs about 2 to 4 pounds (1.1 to 1.8 kg). However the female tends to be heavier. Eastern Cottontails reach a length to 477 mm. Between 12 and 18 inches.

Rabbits are also called:
Doe - a female
Buck - a male
Bunny - young

Eastern cottontails have excellent vision, hearing, and sense of smell. Eastern cottontails have a, high pitched squeal, when attacked or startled. They also may die of shock if handled or caged.

Diet

Eastern cottontails are common animals, living throughout Minnesota in partially open fields, brushlands, and woodlands, brushy areas such as woodlots & shelterbelts. They spend most of the day in and around the shelter of thick vegetation. They are most active near dusk and dawn, but remain active all night. They have a home range of five acres or less and lead mostly solitary lives.

Lagomorphs are plant eaters and have strong front teeth, called incisors, used to cut and chew vegetation. Like the teeth of beavers and other rodents, these incisors grow continuously from the roots and are kept in check by gnawing on plants. Unlike rodents, lagomorphs have an extra pair of peglike teeth behind the big upper incisors. Lagomorphs can chew in a side-to-side motion.

Cottontails eat many kinds vegitation grasses, clover, fruits, flowers, and vegetables. During the winter they eat seeds, buds, twigs, and bark (especially of fruit trees). As the snow accumulates, cottontails have access to the higher trunk and branches. They often trim small stems and you will see them lying along the ground, especially twigs of blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry plants. Feeding activity usually takes place from dusk to dawn.

Eastern cottontails cause a great deal of damage in their search for food. They are pests to gardeners and farmers in the summer. In the winter, they are a threat to the orchardist, forester and landscaper. In addition, humans may contract the bacterial disease tularemia from handling the carcass of an infected cottontail.

Behavior

Eastern cottontails are solitary animals, and very territorial. Their home range is dependent on terrain and food supply. It is usually between 5 and 8 acres, increasing during the breeding season. Males generally have a larger home range than females. The eastern cottontail has keen senses of sight, smell and hearing. It is crepuscular and nocturnal, and is active all winter. During daylight hours, the eastern cottontail remains crouched in a hollow under a log or in a thicket or brushpile. Here it naps and grooms itself. The cottontail sometimes checks the surroundings by standing on its hind legs with its forepaws tucked next to its chest.

The cottontail prefers an area where it can hide quickly but be out in the open. Forests, swamps, thickets, bushes, or open areas where shelter is close by are optimal habitation sites for this species. Cottontails do not dig burrows, but rather rest in a form, a shallow, scratched-out depression in a clump of grass or under brush. It may use the dens of woodchucks as a temporary home, during heavy snow, or nesting area.

Predation helps prevent the rabbit population from growing out of control. Only about 2025% of young rabbits remain alive within a year after birth and 85% of adults or young are killed every year by predators. Regular predators include hawks (especially red-tailed hawks), eagles, owls (especially great horned owls), red foxes, coyotes, bobcats, lynx, cougar, dogs & cats, skunks, raccoons, wolves and weasels.

Cottontails often escape preditors by flushing, a very rapid zig-zag series of bounds, which can also help to confuse the trail to lose preditors. The cottontail is also a quick runner and can reach speeds up to 18 miles per hour. They will also slink by moving low to the ground with the ears flattend against their body to avoid detection. And will often just plain freeze and remain motionless. If you spot a rabbit that has frozen and decide to pick it up by the nape of the neck it may let out a high pitched squeal, and go into shock. This can happen when animals catch them frozen also. Rabbits also have very sharp nails and teeth, the hind nails can be very painful if used against a preditor.

Reproduction

Eastern cottontails are known for being some of nature's most abundant mammals. One female cottontail can produce seven litters per year with up to twelve offspring per litter! A female born in early spring may breed that same summer when only 3 months old!

Mating occures from early spring through early fall. Males will mate with more than one female and will often fight with each other. A mating pair performs an interesting ritual before copulation. This usually occurs after dark. The buck chases the doe until she eventually turns and faces him. She then spars at him with her forepaws. They crouch, facing each other, until one of the pair leaps about 2 feet in the air. This behavior is repeated by both animals before mating.

The eyes open in about five days, and they can venture from the nest in about two weeks. The doe has already mated shortly after having her first litter can be near the end of gestation shortly after the litter is leaving the nest. Weaning is compleated in 16 to 22 days.

They generally leave the area within seven weeks. These young will go through their adult molt at 2-3 months and begin having litters of their own. Aproxamatly 25 percent of young are produced by these rabbits. Rabbits in the wild can live up to nine years but generally live three to five years.

Each year about 80 percent of the Minnesota's cottontail population dies from weather, predators, or disease. The remaining 20 percent have little trouble repopulating the landscape. Cottontail hunting is a popular sport in Minnesota, in fact, it is the number one game animal in the U.S. During the 1999-2000 season, Minnesota hunters harvested around 60,000 cottontails. They are hunted for their meat and fur. Cottontail meat is tasty favored by gourmet chefs who often cook it fried, in stews, or braised with herbs and vegetables.

Cottontails nest in hollows under logs, beneath thick shrubs, brush, or in tall grass. Which is lined with fur, grass and other availible material. Usually 3-4 blind and furless young are produced weighing a little more an ounce, about the size of your thumb. They are minimully cared for feeding occures once or twice daily, and carefully conceiled with a layer of fur, grass, and leaves. They grow rapidly initially about two and a half grams a day.

Litters per year:
1 to 7 average 3

Gestation period:
25 to 28 days

Number of offspring:
1 to 12, average 5

Weight: 1.41 oz, 40 g

Time to weaning:
16 to 22 days

Time to independence:
4 to 5 weeks

Age reproductive maturity:
2 to 3 months

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