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Jul 18, 2017 11:03 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Cottontail Rabbits And Their Nests

A cottontail bunny near what could have been its nest behind The Southampton Press office on Windmill Lane in Southampton Village this past spring. DANA SHAW
Jul 18, 2017 11:24 AM

Adriana Pariz of Southampton reported the most interesting wildlife sighting of the week: a cottontail rabbit had constructed a nest in the middle of her lawn in Southampton Village.My first encounter with a cottontail nest was at my aunt’s house in Hicksville, Nassau County, in the early 1960s. The nest was a very simple grass-covered depression in the ground under a waist-high woody shrub at the edge of the lawn.

Even as a young child with very little knowledge of wildlife, I remember thinking to myself, “That’s a pretty flimsy and unprotected spot to put a bunch of helpless, newborn rabbits!”

But at least that nest was tucked under, and well concealed by, a shrub growing on the property line, and out of the reach of the gas-powered lawnmower. The nest actually was discovered when the mower passed close by, flushing the mother out of hiding and prompting my cousin to take a close look at the pile of grass from which she emerged.

Tucked in the football-sized mound of grass was a knot of tiny, nearly hairless rabbits that were so closely snuggled together that it was impossible to get a head count.

Adriana’s cottontail mom chose to construct a nest as far from cover as possible, relying on a mat of grasses and stems that she collected to conceal the newborns underneath.

One of my references refers to cottontail nests as “elaborate.” This must be in comparison to the other common lagomorph found in the Northeast (but not on Long Island): the snowshoe hare. Snowshoes are adapted for long winters and deep snow. Unlike the cottontail, their young are precocial, meaning they are born fully furred and ready to run without a nest to conceal them. Cottontails are altricial, born quite helpless, with their eyes closed and without an insulating layer of fur.

The nest is a slanting depression in the ground scraped by the female. It measures roughly 4 inches deep, 5 inches wide and 7 inches long, lined with fur (plucked from the female) over a bed of herbaceous material (mostly leaves and grasses) and covered by a low dome of grasses and stems.

At birth, the young are 4 inches long and weigh 1 ounce. Most litters contain four or five young. Mom stays away from the nest, visiting only to nurse the young.

In less than a week, the young are furred and their eyes are open, and at two weeks they make their first trips out of the nest. In four to five weeks, they are weaned, and at six months of age, they are ready to breed.

Fully grown, cottontails measure 14 to 18 inches in length and weigh two to four pounds.

Breeding is stimulated by day length but also is influenced by temperature and diet. The breeding season commences in February in New York and extends through August, enabling up to four litters per year for each female. Studies have found a strong correlation between precipitation and the availability of high-quality forage in the form of succulent vegetation, an important source of nutrients for the female during lactation.

Young are born after a month-long gestation period, and the female is ready to mate soon after covering the newborns’ nest with a thatch roof. Here on Long Island, a single female is capable of producing 20 young in a single year. This high reproductive rate is somewhat offset by a short lifespan: most cottontails survive only two years in the wild.

They live in a wide variety of disturbed, early successional or shrub-dominated habitats with suitable forage and dense understory cover. These habitats include residential backyards with lawns edged by flower gardens and woody shrubs, as well as the coastal dune community. In the latter, they avail themselves of the tough, silicon-impregnated beachgrass leaves for sustenance.

Their diet is described as “cosmopolitan,” meaning wide-ranging and diverse, as opposed to sophisticated. One reference stated that, in describing the cottontail diet, it is easier to list what it does not eat than what it does. Clover is a favorite during the growing season; the buds, twigs and inner bark of apple, sumac and raspberry are among the winter favorites.

Despite the Warner Brothers depiction of carrot-addicted Bugs Bunny, cottontails do not dig up root vegetables.

Much like the ruminants’ habit of regurgitating and re-chewing the cud to derive maximum nutrients from their forage, cottontails ingest their “first run”—soft, dark droppings—for a second pass through the intestines. These are ingested immediately and swallowed whole, all 250 to 500 droppings per day, a habit termed coprophagy.

Cottontails are most active between dusk and dawn, but it is not uncommon to see them feeding during the day in the summer months. When not feeding, they rest in shallow, uncovered depressions called forms. In severe weather, they may take refuge in a hollow log or old woodchuck burrow.

Historically, Long Island was home to the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), which is now listed as endangered. For a variety of reasons, including transplants of the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) here in the early 1900s by hunting clubs and natural resource agencies, the Eastern cottontail is now our resident rabbit species.

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