Do New England Cottontails Live Near You?
Cottontails leave signs of their presence that may be conspicuous or hard to find, depending on the density of vegetation and the season of the year. Telltale evidence includes droppings, tracks in mud or snow, gnawed tree bark, and twigs of shrubs or small trees nipped off at a 45-degree angle. The best time to look for sign is in winter, a few days after a snowfall. Droppings are easily spotted on top of the snow, and tracks can remain visible for days. Other signs of cottontails may be blood or disturbed areas in the snow marking the spot where a hawk, owl, fox, or coyote caught and killed a rabbit.
Cottontails make rounded tracks with their front feet and oval tracks with their hind feet. The front tracks are smaller than the rear tracks. If the rabbit is hopping, the rear tracks actually print in front of the front tracks. The rear tracks of an adult cottontail are 2.75 to 4 inches long and 1.25 to slightly more than 1.5 inches wide. (The larger snowshoe hare makes hind-foot tracks that are more triangular and considerably longer at 3.25 to 6 inches.)
Rabbit droppings are brown, round, and about a quarter-inch in diameter. Some biologists estimate that cottontails leave behind around 300 pellets a day. Scientists refer to them as "fecal pellets." DNA analysis in a research laboratory can distinguish between the pellets of New England cottontails, eastern cottontails, and snowshoe hares. Landowners and land managers in the range of the New England cottontail (see the map on the Helping Cottontails webpage to learn if you live in an area that has cottontails) can contact state wildlife agencies or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to learn about ongoing DNA studies through which pellet samples can be tested and the possible presence of New England cottontails verified.
These natural resource professionals can help private landowners, land trusts, or municipalities create young forest to provide food and hiding cover for cottontails and all the other wild creatures that need this important habitat.