Where They Live
What Cottontails Call Home
New England cottontails need masses and tangles of saplings, weeds, vines, and shrubs. A human on foot can’t simply stroll through such places – in many cases, they won’t even be able to enter!
Ecologists call this type of habitat "early successional." Successional refers to the natural succession of one plant community by another – for example, the gradual evolution of an old field into a stand of shrubs and young trees, then, as the trees grow taller, into middle-aged and older forest.
New England cottontails – and a whole suite of other wildlife from tiny reptiles and amphibians to large mammals – generally do live in middle-aged or mature woods. Why not? Because the shade cast on the ground by the tall trees makes it hard for sun-loving plants and shrubs to grow there densely enough to yield the low, thick cover that these animals need -- the kind of cover supplied by shrublands and young forest. (In some woods, typically ones with a lot of oak trees, enough light may reach the ground to let blueberry, scrub oak, mountain laurel, and greenbriar grow thick enough to make cottontail habitat. Such plant communities need to be rejuvenated every few years by fire.)
Young Forest is the Key
Young forest hums with life. Its diverse plant growth provides wildlife with a variety of foods as well as protection from weather and predators. Young forest is just as necessary for a healthy environment as old-growth forest or wetlands; it just isn’t as well-known or as highly regarded (yet) as those two other habitat types. Unfortunately, its acreage is dwindling in many regions, including the Northeast, as tracts of young forest become older woodland.
From a human perspective, young forest can seem inhospitable. It may be too thick to explore, unless a trail or a logging road leads through it. Sometimes it seems like just so much featureless brush. Yet young forest can be attractive in its own rough-edged way. It allows a sweeping view of the landscape. Its dense vegetation can provide privacy, minimize soil erosion, and block wind and noise without shutting out sunlight. It can lessen the racket from nearby roads, and even solve a trespass problem.
New England cottontails need large, interlinking tracts of young forest. They readily use the following habitats:
- Abandoned fields choked with brambles, dogwood, hawthorn, greenbriar, and other shrubs and vines.
- Swamps overgrown with shrubs such as alders, meadowsweet, blueberry, sweet gale, and willow, and brush growing in wetlands or areas flooded by beaver dams.
- Sites cleared by machines that are growing back as low, dense shrubby or woody cover, such as utility and railroad corridors.
- Forest logged heavily within the past two to 15 years, where young trees spring up vigorously from the root systems and stumps of cut trees.
- Woodland thickets beneath trees whose foliage lets in enough light so that blueberry, scrub oak, mountain laurel, and greenbriar densely cloak the ground.
- Young woodland growing back after older trees have died following insect infestations or fires, or been knocked down by high winds.
- Coastal shrublands where wind and salt spray retard tree and shrub growth.
Good Habitat Doesn’t Last Forever
Young-forest habitats are ephemeral – they don’t last forever, and sometimes they stop being useful to cottontails after only a few years.
In times past, ample amounts of young forest moved around on the landscape following fires sparked by lightning or set by Native Americans, flooding caused by spring melt or beavers, and forests leveled by windstorms. Today, we prevent many such disturbances from taking place. Fortunately we can create and renew young forest in more-controlled ways, through the careful use of habitat-management techniques such as clearcut logging, mowing shrubs to return them to a denser growth stage, and setting controlled fires to burn back woody vegetation and spur the new growth of ground-hugging plants.