Cottontail Rabbits

Wildlife Damage Management February 04, 2008|Print

Cottontail Rabbits | Cottontail Rabbit Overview | Cottontail Rabbit Damage Assessment | Cottontail Rabbit Damage Management | Cottontail Rabbit Resources | Cottontail Rabbit Acknowledgments | ICWDM | Wildlife Species Information



Rabbits mean different things to different people. For hunters, the cottontail rabbit is an abundant, sporting, and tasty game animal. However, vegetable and flower gardeners, farmers, and homeowners who are suffering damage may have very little to say in favor of cottontails. They can do considerable damage to flowers, vegetables, trees, and shrubs any time of the year and in places ranging from suburban yards to rural fields and tree plantations. Control is often necessary to reduce damage, but complete extermination is not necessary, desirable, or even possible.

Rabbits usually can be accepted as interesting additions to the backyard or rural landscape if control techniques are applied correctly. Under some unusual circumstances, control of damage may be difficult.

Damage control methods include removal by live trapping or hunting, exclusion, and chemical repellents. In general, no toxicants or fumigants are registered for rabbit control; however, state regulations may vary. Frightening devices may provide a sense of security for the property owner, but they rarely diminish rabbit damage.



Figure 1. Eastern cottontail rabbit, Sylvilagus floridanus

There are 13 species of cottontail rabbits (genus Sylvilagus), nine of which are found in various sections of North America north of Mexico. All nine are similar in general appearance and behavior, but differ in size, range, and habitat. Such differences result in a wide variation of damage problems, or lack of problems. The pygmy rabbit (S. idahoensis), found in the Pacific North-west, weighs only 1 pound (0.4 kg), while the swamp rabbit (S. aquaticus), found in the southeastern states as far north as southern Illinois, may weigh up to 5 pounds (2.3 kg). Most species prefer open, brushy, or cultivated areas but some frequent marshes, swamps, or deserts. The swamp rabbit and the marsh rabbit (S. palustris) are strong swimmers. The eastern cottontail (S. floridanus) is the most abundant and widespread species. For the purposes of the discussion here about damage control and biology, the eastern cottontail (Fig. 1) will be considered representative of the genus. Cottontail rabbits must be distinguished from jackrabbits and other hares, which are generally larger in size and have longer ears. Jackrabbits are discussed in another chapter of this book.

The eastern cottontail rabbit is approximately 15 to 19 inches (37 to 48 cm) in length and weighs 2 to 4 pounds (0.9 to 1.8 kg). Males and females are basically the same size and color. Cottontails appear gray or brownish gray in the field. Closer examination reveals a grizzled blend of white, gray, brown, and black guard hairs over a soft grayish or brownish underfur, with a characteristic rusty brown spot on the nape of the neck. Rabbits molt twice each year, but remain the same general color. They have large ears, though smaller than those of jackrabbits, and the hind feet are much larger than the forefeet. The tail is short and white on the undersurface, and its similarity to a cotton ball resulted in the rabbit’s common name.

General Biology and Reproduction

Rabbits live only 12 to 15 months, and probably only one rabbit in 100 lives to see its third fall, yet they make the most of the time available to them. Cottontails can raise as many as 6 litters in a year. Typically, there are 2 to 3 litters per year in northern parts of the cottontail range and up to 5 to 6 in southern areas. In the north (Wisconsin), first litters are born as early as late March or April. In the south (Texas), litters may be born year-round. Litter size also varies with latitude; rabbits produce 5 to 6 young per litter in the north, 2 to 3 in the south. The rabbit’s gestation period is only 28 or 29 days, and a female is usually bred again within a few hours of giving birth. Rabbits give birth in a shallow nest depression in the ground. Young cottontails are born nearly furless with their eyes closed. Their eyes open in 7 to 8 days, and they leave the nest in 2 to 3 weeks.

Under good conditions, each pair of rabbits could produce approximately 18 young during the breeding season. Fortunately, this potential is rarely reached. Weather, disease, predators, encounters with cars and hunters, and other mortality factors combine to keep a lid on the rabbit population.

Because of the cottontail’s reproductive potential, no lethal control is effective for more than a limited period. Control measures are most effective when used against the breeding population during the winter. Habitat modification and exclusion techniques provide long-term, nonlethal control.

Cottontail Rabbits | Cottontail Rabbit Overview | Cottontail Rabbit Damage Assessment | Cottontail Rabbit Damage Management | Cottontail Rabbit Resources | Cottontail Rabbit Acknowledgments | ICWDM | Wildlife Species Information


Top to Bottom. Figure 2. Range of the eastern cottontail in North America. Figure 3. Range of the desert cottontail in North America. Figure 4. Range of the mountain cottontail in North America.

The eastern cottontail’s range includes the entire United States east of the Rocky Mountains and introductions further west. It extends from southern New England along the Canadian border west to eastern Montana and south into Mexico and South America (Fig. 2). The most common species of the western United States include the desert cottontail (S. auduboni, Fig. 3), and mountain cottontail (S. muttalli, Fig. 4). Refer to a field guide or suggested readings if other species of the genus Sylvilagus are of interest.


Cottontails do not distribute themselves evenly across the landscape. They tend to concentrate in favorable habitat such as brushy fence rows or field edges, gullies filled with debris, brush piles, or landscaped backyards where food and cover are suitable. They are rarely found in dense forests or open grasslands, but fallow crop fields, such as those in the Conservation Reserve Program, may provide suitable habitat.

Cottontails generally spend their entire lives in an area of 10 acres or less. Occasionally they may move a mile or so from summer range to winter cover or to a new food supply. Lack of food or cover is usually the motivation for a rabbit to relocate. In suburban areas, rabbits are numerous and mobile enough to fill any “empty” habitat created when other rabbits are removed. Population density varies with habitat quality, but one rabbit per acre is a reasonable average.

Contrary to popular belief, cottontails do not dig their own burrows, as the European rabbit does. Cottontails use natural cavities or burrows excavated by woodchucks or other animals.

Underground dens are used primarily in extremely cold or wet weather and to escape pursuit. Brush piles and other areas of cover are often adequate alternatives to burrows.

In spring and fall, rabbits use a grass or weed shelter called a “form.” The form is a nest-like cavity on the surface of the ground, usually made in dense cover. It gives the rabbit some protection from weather, but is largely used for concealment. In summer, lush green growth provides both food and shelter, so there is little need for a form.

Scott R. Craven. Extension Wildlife Specialist. Department of Wildlife Ecology. University of Wisconsin, Madison. Madison, Wisconsin 53706


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