The Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is one of the most common wildlife species in the state of Ohio. Although native to the state it was not as nearly widespread prior to European settlement. As with several other species of wildlife, the Eastern cottontail was a beneficiary of settlement; the clearing of wood lands and the establishment of more open areas along wooded borders provided an ideal environment.
Cottontail rabbits are also prolific. It has been estimated that if no young rabbits were lost from a litter, one pair of rabbits could produce 350,000 offspring in five years. This is unlikely to ever occur as rabbits also have a high mortality rate --few live more than a year.
The Eastern cottontail rabbit is a small mammal with a brownish-gray body, long ears, and a small white tuft of a tail that resembles a cotton ball -- the feature it derives a part of its name from. There is also a rusty colored patch of fur on the nape of the neck. The feet can be whitish.
Eastern cottontail rabbits are polygamous breeders and peak breeding activity occurs in April and May. Young are born between early March and late September, but mostly in May and June. Gestation lasts 29 or 30 days. Litter sizes range from 2-7 young (5 on average) and young leave their mother after 3+ weeks. Eastern cottontails have 2-5 litters per year (3 on average).
The nest is a shallow depression made in the ground that is four to six inches deep and four to five inches wide. A variety of field types ranging from pastures to pine plantations to mowed lawns are used as nesting sites. As long as there is suitable cover and food near by, a site is acceptable for nesting. The nest is lined with dry grass and fur from the female’s body. The young are born with their eyes closed, deaf, and without hair. The female doesn't stay on the nest however; most of the time she is away from it returning only to feed the young.
Habitat & Behavior
Eastern cottontail rabbits are year-round residents prefer open areas bordered by thickets or brush areas. Preferably the open area is an old field with tall grass. Nearby burrows are used as protection from predators and harsh weather. Open woods with nearby brush piles or near fields are also used. Still rabbits are found inhabiting suburbs and cities using lawns and nearby borders of shrubbery and other boundary plantings for food and cover.
Rabbits prefer to eat near cover, and rely on “travel lanes” not only for safe haven, but as a relatively safe way to get from place to place. A travel lane may be a brushy fence row, multiflora rose hedges, immature pines, corn rows, stream banks or dry drainage ditches--cottontails are reluctant to get into water although they are capable of fording water if necessary. They typically eat clover, dandelion, plantain, lamb’s-quarter, and ragweed. Winter foods may include ear corn, dry hay, and bark of tree saplings, raspberry, blackberry, and multiflora rose.
Research & Surveys
The Eastern cottontail rabbit is one of the most common wildlife species in Ohio. Although native to the state it was not as nearly widespread prior to European settlement. As with several other species of wildlife, the Eastern cottontail was a beneficiary of settlement; the clearing of wood lands and the establishment of more open areas along wooded borders provided an ideal environment. This brush land edge species is Ohio's most popular small game animal. Its adaptability to a variety of habitat types and conditions has allowed it to maintain reasonable numbers in spite of human population growth, habitat loss, and intensive land use.
In Ohio, rabbit populations have been monitored annually each spring and summer since the 1950’s through the Rural Mail Carrier (RMC) survey. These surveys have shown a relatively stable long-term trend, although populations do fluctuate annually depending on weather patterns which affect winter survival and spring production. Cottontail rabbits occur statewide today with highest densities in southern and eastern Ohio.
Summer RMC surveys indicate that rabbit populations have remained stable since 2013, with a statewide index of 10.87 rabbits observed per 1,000 survey miles. Strongest populations were observed in the northeast hills, southeast, and south-central portions of Ohio. Populations tend to be lower in the glaciated farmlands of western and northwestern Ohio where intensive agriculture provides less grassland and brushy habitat for cottontails and other upland game.