Behavior and Feeding
Day to Day
With its eyes on the sides of its head, a rabbit has excellent vision that takes in a wide field of view. Large ears and keen hearing let a rabbit listen closely to its surroundings. A cottontail generally will hop from place to place, but it can put on a burst of speed and dodge quickly when fleeing a predator. A fox or coyote chasing a cottontail usually focuses on the rabbit’s bobbing bright-white tail – when the rabbit suddenly stops and crouches, its tail no longer visible, the predator may lose track of its prey.
Adult New England cottontails spend the day resting quietly on the ground, hidden by dense weeds, shrubs, and young trees. At dusk a cottontail leaves its daytime retreat and moves about for several hours feeding on vegetation. It will also feed in early morning. Should it detect a land mammal like a fox or bobcat, or an aerial predator such as an owl, the rabbit will freeze in place or dart into a hole (a woodchuck den makes a good hideaway), a crevice in a rock wall, or a brushy tangle.
How Far Do They Go?
Home ranges of individual New England cottontails vary from 0.5 to 8 acres, with males’ ranges larger than those of females. In summer, when vegetation is lush, ranges tend to be smaller than in winter, when rabbits must travel more widely to find food.
In summer cottontails eat grasses, rushes, sedges, clovers, and the shoots, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds of many different plants. Among their favorites are goldenrod, plantain, chickweed, sheep sorrel, buttercup, smartweed, wild strawberry, cinquefoil, and violet.
In autumn rabbits switch to a diet of bark, twigs, and buds. Among the first woody plants they turn to are blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and willow. They also feed on winterberry holly, maleberry, silky dogwood, native rose species, spirea, chokeberry, sumac, hazelnut, fox grape, and greenbrier. In winter, snow on the ground may cover up lower vegetation, but it lets rabbits reach higher and get at other foods. New England cottontails eat seedlings and shoots of birch, maple, aspen, apple, cherry, oak, hickory, and other trees.