Making Habitat and Helping Cottontails

The fact that Connecticut still has widely distributed populations of New England cottontails signals that a fair amount of suitable habitat exists in the state. But conservationists aren't taking the situation for granted. The kind of habitat that cottontails need – shrubland and young forest – is short-lived and needs to be made and renewed frequently. Biologists and foresters with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) are joining other conservation partners in making suitable habitat from one end of the state to the other. (Check out Connecticut's Young Forest and Shrubland Initiative.)

To learn about specific habitat demonstration areas and projects, go back to the dropdown for Connecticut under the Success Stories menu item and scroll down below the state summary.

New England Cottontail Focus Areas in Connecticut

For years, the DEEP Wildlife Division used limited funds to make young forest habitat when and wherever possible. Then in 2009, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grant let Connecticut and some neighboring states increase their activities. Since then, and using additional grants, Connecticut has made more than 400 acres of New England cottontail and young forest habitat, and has plans for at least 500 more acres on key state properties. More young forest continues to be created in state forests through regular forestry operations, many of which are undertaken specifically to benefit wildlife. All of these state land sites serve as demonstration areas where the public can learn about the importance of young forest. Roraback Wildlife Management Area features a self-guided trail.

State and federal biologists, along with staff contracted through the Wildlife Management Institute, have extended habitat-creation efforts to private lands, partnering with land trusts, conservation groups, sportsmen’s clubs, municipalities, and private landowners. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has funded most of this work. To date, partners have created habitat on nearly 600 privately owned acres to benefit New England cottontails and other young forest wildlife; another 1,100 acres are scheduled for management. As Connecticut’s citizens learn about the importance of young forest to wildlife, more and more organizations and private landowners inquire about making this critical habitat on their own properties. Contact biologists Lisa Wahle ( or Judy Wilson ( for more information.

Research and Monitoring

While a cadre of biologists and foresters are working to make habitat, another team of scientists, under the direction of DEEP biologist Dr. Howard Kilpatrick, is researching and monitoring cottontails throughout the state.

Biologist using radio-telemetry to locate cottontail

Biologist Travis Goodie uses radio-tellemetry receiver to find the location of a radio-collared New England cottontail.

Distribution: Ongoing fecal-pellet collection and live-trapping, as well as examining rabbits harvested legally by hunters and specimens killed on highways, help scientists keep tabs on the locations of New England cottontail populations. In 2014, eight new locations were documented and two new towns added to the map for New England cottontails.

Populaton Density and Composition: An analysis of cottontail-occupied habitat patches showed that 8 percent were occupied by New England cottontails only, 65 percent by eastern cottontails only, and 27 percent by both species. Kilpatrick’s group also studied size, density, and species composition at several sites using three different mark-and-recapture techniques. Densities ranged from 0.6 to 2.4 cottontails per acre.

Habitat Restoration Success: On all state lands managed to benefit New England cottontails, and on key private lands, researchers conduct surveys to evaluate the response of both vegetation and cottontails to management actions. Workers evaluate stem density of trees and shrubs before management, one year after management, and then every other year. In alternate years they collect rabbit fecal pellets to document use by New England cottontails and/or eastern cottontails. So far, all sites have exceeded the minimum stem-density goal of 20,000 stems per acre (which means they provide excellent cover in which cottontails can hide from predators), and measures taken to control invasive plants appear to have effectively shifted the percentage of plants from invasive to much more preferable native types.

Captive Breeding: In 2014, biologists captured 12 New England cottontails in the Bethlehem area and transported them to the Roger Williams Park Zoo for use in their captive breeding program. Three more rabbits went to the newly established breeding program at the Queens Zoo. To date, Connecticut has provided more than 25 rabbits to the captive breeding effort.

Eastern Cottontail Removal: Beginning in 2012, biologists live-trapped and removed eastern cottontails from two sites occupied by both cottontail species. In 2013, similar efforts took place at two more sites. Preliminary analysis indicates that more than 90 percent of the eastern cottontail population must be removed from a given area to increase the proportion of New England cottontails in the local rabbit population.

Beagles used for cottontail research

Wildlife scientists are comparing how New England cottontails and eastern cottontails react to being chased by hunting hounds.

Response to Beagle Chase (No rabbits harmed): At a site occupied by both cottontail species, scientists observed radio-collared rabbits being chased by a beagle (the type of dog used by most rabbit hunters). After three full circles, if the rabbit did not lose the dog, the dog was called off. To assess vulnerability to hunting, the scientists looked at how often dogs completed three full circles and how often the rabbit crossed an open area, such as a field or dirt access road, where it could have been shot by the hunter. The number of times rabbits were chased for three full circles was similar for both species (around 30 percent), but eastern cottontails were more likely to cross or enter open areas, thus making them more vulnerable to hunters. If the dog lost the rabbit’s trail, researchers located the radio-collared rabbit and recorded the type of escape cover in which the rabbit had successfully hidden. They found that both species of rabbits used similar escape cover.

For more information about DEEP research on New England cottontails, contact

In a separate research effort, Dr. Tracy Rittenhouse at the University of Connecticut is working with graduate and undergraduate students on New England cottontail studies that focus on survivorship, daytime activity patterns, and microhabitat characteristics. Dr. Rittenhouse’s husband, Dr. Chadwick Rittenhouse, a wildlife biologist and Geographic Information System (GIS) expert, provided a statewide estimate of shrubland and young forest in Connecticut through a time series analysis of satellite imagery. This information lets biologists estimate the amount of overall habitat available for New England cottontails in the state.