Habitat Ins and Outs
Keep it Thick
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.
It is the height and density of vegetation, rather than its species make-up, that determines whether it will make a good home for cottontails.
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 offer important shelter, especially in fall and winter.
Shrubs and vines that New England cottontails eat include raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, winterberry holly, willow, maleberry, dogwood, native rose species, chokeberry, sumac, hazelnut, bayberry, greenbrier, and many others. 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, cherry, 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. For a front-seat view of a "brontosaurus" machine clearing trees to renew habitat, click here.
How Big Should Habitat Areas Be?
The bigger, the better. 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 (and ideally much larger) are necessary for local populations to survive.
When cover gets too old or too thin (or gets bulldozed to make way for development), remnant patches of young forest become disconnected. Small islands of habitat separated by zones of poor-quality habitat will cause local cottontail populations to become isolated. Since New England cottontails do not travel widely, it gets harder and harder for males and females to find each other and breed. Today, most of the habitat patches where New England cottontails have been found in southern New England are less than 7.5 acres in area and hold only three or four rabbits. Such patches are too small and too fragmented to support a healthy population of rabbits over the long haul.