Natural and Human-Created Disturbances Make Rabbit Habitat

New England cottontails live in several different types of habitat in the Bay State. In southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, they inhabit pitch pine-scrub oak woodlands growing on the dry, sandy soils of that region. In southwestern Massachusetts, they live in young forest in upland areas and in wetlands with dense shrubs.

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

View a map of Massachusetts' New England Cottontail Focus Areas, or see attachments at the bottom of this webpage.)

Clearcut in Berkshires will become New England cottontail habitat

Conservationists mimic natural disturbances by harvesting timber, as on this 25-acre site on Berkshire Natural Resource Council's 550-acre Clam River Reserve in southwestern Massachusetts./C. Fergus

Conservationists manage habitats in these settings by mimicking the effects of natural disturbances that historically gave rise to areas of young forest on the landscape. Pitch pine-scrub oak woodlands are often managed through “prescribed fire,” carefully controlled burning that removes older, thinner vegetation and gives rise to the younger, thicker, and more diverse shrubs and plants that cottontails need for feeding and hiding from predators.

In southwestern Massachusetts, conservationists’ efforts recreate the effects of hurricanes, tornadoes, and beavers’ tree-cutting activities as well as other natural disturbances that clear mature trees from a given site and create conditions in which a new young forest can grow – a forest of small trees, with numerous stems, shrubs, and accompanying plant communities that provide abundant food and cover for cottontails and other wildlife, both rare and common.

Habitat Management

Fire used to manage habitat for New England cottontails

Controlled burning on Massachusetts Army National Guard base on Upper Cape Cod creates habitat for wildlife and shapes a training landscape for military personnel.

Biologists work with foresters, burn bosses, and loggers to carefully plan and conduct habitat management projects on both public and private land. Between 2010 and 2015, conservationists thinned and/or burned vegetation on approximately 1,100 acres of pitch pine-oak woodlands, and created nearly 300 acres of young forest for New England cottontails through logging. They made or renewed young forest on property owned or managed by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (MassWildlife), Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Joint Base Cape Cod (a military installation), the Mashpee-Wampanoag Tribe, and on the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, municipalities, land trusts, game clubs, and other private landowners have completed habitat management projects to benefit cottontails. Primary funding sources include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and State Wildlife Grants.

Population Surveys

To determine locations where New England cottontails occur, wildlife biologists and technicians collect rabbits killed on highways or harvested by hunters, and also rabbit fecal pellets. Scientists examine skull characteristics or analyze DNA found in pellets or carcasses to learn whether the rabbit in question is a native New England cottontail or an eastern cottontail (the eastern cottontail was introduced into New England in the past and is not native to the region). Many volunteers throughout Massachusetts contribute to this effort by sending rabbit carcasses to MassWildlife, with the University of Rhode Island conducting genetic testing. So far, scientists have not confirmed the existence of New England cottontails outside of designated New England cottontail focus areas, but have been able to reconfirm the species’ presence in both southeastern and southwestern Massachusetts where they had been documented in 2003 and 2004. In addition, staff from Nantucket Conservation Foundation collected samples, with the result that for the first time since 1992, New England cottontails have been confirmed on Nantucket Island.

Research, Monitoring, and Captive Breeding

Biologists live-trap rabbits, attach radio-collars to them, and monitor them over time to learn about their life history and habitat use.

Biologists handle live-trapped New England cottontail

Biologists monitor radio-collared cottontails to learn how they use habitat and respond to habitat management.

Live-trapping has also provided individuals for use in a captive breeding program at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, and Queens Zoo in New York. Staff from MassWildlife, Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge, the Mashpee-Wampanoag Tribe, and Massachusetts Army National Guard have been involved in these efforts.

Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge, in the towns of Mashpee and Falmouth on Cape Cod, was established in 1995 to preserve and protect natural resources and wildlife in the Waquoit Bay area. Managed through a unique partnership among nine federal, state, and private conservation entities, all of which own land within it, the refuge preserves thousands of acres of land and is home to New England cottontails. Biologists have conducted research in the following areas at Mashpee NWR:

  • Home Range and Habitat Use by Cottontails Through radio-telemetry studies in 2010 and 2011, biologists determined that the average year-round home range for New England cottontails was 30 acres, and for eastern cottontails 57 acres. New England cottontails most often used residential areas, acidic swamps, pitch pine barrens, and maritime forests, while eastern cottontails spent most of their time in residential areas, tidal marshland, and maritime forest.
  • Habitat Management for New England Cottontails Conservationists manage parts of Mashpee NWR through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning to boost the growth of understory shrubs that provide food and cover for cottontails. Researchers collect data on stem density, canopy cover, plant species, and vertical structure at sites before management activities take place, then collect data in the same categories after management to learn if actions led to the desired vegetation response.
  • Cottontail Occupancy in Managed Sites Biologists conduct fecal pellet surveys each winter in sites that have been managed through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning, to learn whether management activities have improved the habitat for New England cottontails. These surveys let conservationists determine whether cottontails are using a managed site; which species of cottontails are using the site; and how quickly a site becomes suitable habitat for each species after management takes place.

Camp Edwards

The Massachusetts Army National Guard conducts research, monitoring, and management at Camp Edwards on Upper Cape Cod. Biologists have been trapping, collaring, and tracking rabbits on the base since 2009. They’ve found that resident New England cottontails have relatively large home ranges (average, 68 acres), with great variation (8 to 167 acres). Other monitoring and research efforts include collecting fecal pellets for DNA analysis; trapping rabbits to attach radio-collars; and tracking rabbits and studying the vegetation that they inhabit. The research addresses how New England cottontails and non-native eastern cottontails respond to habitat management and helps guide long-term decision-making for conservationists managing habitat in southeastern Massachusetts.

Management efforts continually create and renew habitat for New England cottontails, and 22,000-acre Camp Edwards offers a substantial tract of manageable land. Conservationists have treated nearly 1,100 acres with prescribed fire and mechanical treatments since 2013, actions that promote habitat and improve conditions for military training. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Massachusetts Army National Guard, and Massachusetts Wildlife spent nearly $300,000 between 2013 and 2015 to manage young forest habitat on Camp Edwards.

Contact to learn more about MassWildlife’s conservation efforts or for information about conducting habitat management projects on private land.