Where They Live
What Cottontails Call Home
New England cottontails need masses and tangles of saplings, weeds, vines, and shrubs. Ecologists label 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, abandoned 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 insects to large mammals – do not live in middle-aged or mature woods. Why not? Because the shade cast by the trees makes it hard for low plants and shrubs to grow densely enough to yield the thick cover that these animals need -- the kind of cover supplied by shrubland and young forest.
Young Forest Hums With Life
The diverse, dense plants in a patch of young forest provide wildlife with a variety of foods as well as protection from predators and the elements. 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. Unfortunately, the amount of young forest is dwindling in many regions, including the Northeast, as areas of young trees and shrubs inexorably turn into 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 way. It allows a sweeping view of the landscape. Its dense vegetation can provide privacy, minimize soil erosion, and block wind without shutting out sunlight. It can muffle the noise from a nearby road, 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
Patches of young forest are ephemeral – they don’t last forever, and often they stop being useful to cottontails after 10 or so years.
In times past, ample amounts of young forest moved around on the landscape following wildfires sparked by lightning or set by Native Americans, and flooding caused by spring melt or beavers. Today, to protect lives and property, we prevent many such disturbances. Fortunately we can create and renew young forest in more-controlled ways, through the careful use of habitat-management techniques such as even-age (clearcut) logging, mowing shrubs to return them to a denser growth stage, and setting controlled fires to burn off woody vegetation and spur the new growth of ground-hugging plants.
Download Best Management Practices (PDF) for making New England cottontail habitat. For a non-technical guide to making young forest habitat, consult the Young Forest Guide. These natural resource professionals can offer advice on how to get started.