Habitat Ins and Outs
Keep it Thick
New England cottontails inhabit stands of thick shrubs and young trees interrupted with open areas with grasses and other ground plants. With their innate fear of predators, New England cottontails generally don't go farther than about 16 feet from protective cover of thickets and brush.
Biologists have learned that it is the height and density of vegetation, more than its species make-up, that determines whether it will make a good home for cottontails. Good habitat is at least several feet tall and thick enough that a person would have trouble walking through it. (Research suggests that it should have at least 40,000 to 50,000 woody stems per acre.) It also needs to provide food and cover for rabbits year-round.
Healthy young forest habitat holds many kinds of plants. Cottontails feed on bark, twigs, leaves, buds, shoots, flowers, and fruits, with food selection varying through the seasons. Evergreen trees and shrubs can provide important shelter, especially in fall and winter.
Shrubs and vines that New England cottontails shelter and feed on include raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, winterberry holly, willow, maleberry, dogwood, native rose species, chokeberry, sumac, hazelnut, bayberry, and greenbrier. They feed on succulent greenery such as grasses, clovers, rushes, sedges, and other wild plants. In winter they turn to the bark, twigs, and buds of shrubs and young trees such as oaks, maples, aspen, birches, apple, and hawthorn.
Conservationists use heavy-duty machines, controlled fires, and timber harvests to regenerate shrubland and woods, removing middle-aged or older trees and letting young trees sprout to provide the fresh, new habitat needed by cottontails and many other kinds of wildlife. Check out this front-seat view of a "brontosaurus" machine clearing trees to renew habitat.
How Big Should Habitat Areas Be?
An area of rabbit habitat must be large enough to provide food and cover year-round. New England cottontails are twice as likely to be killed by predators when they occupy patches 5 acres or smaller, compared to ones 12 acres or larger. Habitat blocks of at least 25 acres, linked to other similar-sized patches, are necessary for local populations to survive.
When cover gets too old and thin (or gets bulldozed for development), remnant patches of habitat become disconnected. Small islands of habitat separated by zones of poor-quality habitat will cause local cottontail populations to become isolated. At that point, it gets harder and harder for males and females to find each other and breed. Today, many of the habitat patches where New England cottontails have been found are less than 7.5 acres and hold only a few rabbits. Such small populations are too small to survive over time.
Conservation partners, including many private landowners, are creating habitat demonstration area to help New England cottontails and other young forest wildlife.