Tolland and Granville Area, Berkshires

Hunting Clubs, Private Landowners Give Cottontails a Helping Hand

Two hunting clubs, several private landowners, and a water authority are making young forest habitat that will help New England cottontails and other wildlife move more freely across the landscape in the Berkshires and increase their overall numbers in these largely wooded uplands of southwestern Massachusetts.

New England cottontail hiding in habitat.

Patches of young forest and shrubland located near one another let New England cottontails move through the landscape./V. Young

Far-traveling mammals like moose, bobcat, and black bear use young forest for travel corridors, plus feed on the resources found abundantly there – tree shoots and twigs for browsers like moose, small rodents for predators like bobcats, fruits and grasses for generalists like bears. Thanks to their ability to fly, birds can quickly find and colonize areas of new young forest: year-round residents like ruffed grouse, migrators such as woodcock and broad-winged hawks, and a host of songbirds, including prairie and blue-winged warblers, eastern towhees, and white-throated sparrows.

The animals mentioned above are all Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Massachusetts, largely because their preferred young forest habitat is in short supply in a state where many woodlands are middle-aged and older.

What about New England cottontails? These furtive woods rabbits may move up to 3 kilometers to find mates or to take up residence in new young forest whether created by natural forces such as ice- or windstorms or forest fires, or by humans’ habitat management efforts. Cottontails need dense woody and shrubby vegetation 3 to 15 feet tall. New England cottontail populations exhibit low survival in habitat patches less than 12 acres, and they do best in blocks of young forest and shrubland 25 acres or larger.

Where Cottontails Live

New England cottontails sometimes live in dense thickets of mountain laurel, common understory shrubs in forested parts of the Berkshires. They also inhabit forested swamps and shrub swamps, which often support a thick ground-hugging growth of highbush blueberry, dogwood, meadowsweet, winterberry, alder, willow, and other shrubs.

Skidder on habitat project for New England cottontails

Timber harvesting is a good way to make young forest habitat in strategic places./M. Piché

Shrub swamps generally provide thick habitat for longer periods than young regrowing forest, where ground-level plants usually start thinning out after 10 to 20 years as trees grow tall and their crowns shut out direct sunlight. But in swampy sites, trees don’t become established as readily, allowing shrubs and other low vegetation to continue to flourish. Some biologists believe that small populations of New England cottontails persist in shrub swamps over decades, then disperse out of these redoubts into areas of new habitat when they become available.

While we can’t plan for storms and wildfires, we can strategically locate timber harvests (both commercial and noncommercial ones) and other habitat management projects to create patches of young forest near where cottontails have been found.

Biologists confirm the presence of cottontails in a given area by finding their droppings, usually on top of winter’s snow, and sending the fecal pellets to laboratories that perform genetics-based tests identifying which type of rabbit or hare deposited the pellets. (The round brown droppings of the eastern cottontail, an imported rabbit, and the native snowshoe hare, a larger young-forest dweller, look similar to those of New England cottontails.)

The towns of Tolland and Granville in Hampden County form part of the Southern Berkshire Focus Area for the restoration of the New England cottontail. In this area, pellet recoveries have shown the presence of New England cottontails in four locations since 2003, with another one just south of the border in Connecticut. (They may inhabit other sites in the area as well.)

White-throated sparrows need young forest.

White-throated sparrows and other songbirds quickly find and use patches of new young forest for nesting and feeding./T. Berriman

Habitat biologist Marianne Piché, with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (MassWildlife), plots these locations on maps. Then she looks for landowners interested in creating young forest to benefit New England cottontails and their habitat companions, which include more than 60 species of reptiles, birds, and other mammals. Piché works closely with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to deliver financial assistance to private landowners who take on habitat-management projects that benefit wildlife. Such habitat projects are paid for through timber harvesting as well as by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) funds contributed by NRCS. In the Southern Berkshire Focus Area, 11 private-lands projects with NRCS funding had been started or completed by December 2014.

In Tolland and Granville, several such new sites have come to fruition after Piché worked with Vince Snyder and Nikki Thibault of NRCS to plan young forest habitat management projects.

Tunxis Club

The Tunxis Club includes 3,000 acres owned by a group of private landowners. Before World War II, the land was leased to hunters and fishermen mainly from the Hartford, Connecticut, area, who subsequently bought the tract, on a high plateau at about 1,500 feet in elevation. Sixty years ago the Tunxis Club and many other properties in the area included a lot of old, tired farmland and grazing land just starting to grow back into shrubs and small trees. Today, as a result of natural forest succession, Tolland and Granville are largely cloaked with middle-aged woods, like much of the rest of the Berkshires – decent habitat for some species of wildlife but not so good for others.

Hunters with dogs on habitat project.

Grouse hunters like Tunxis Club members Jack Rabuse (left) and Jerry Mannion know that this fresh clearcut timber harvest will soon grow up thickly in game- and wildlife-friendly young forest./C. Fergus

Most hunters realize that gamebirds like ruffed grouse and woodcock need low, thick cover, and that such habitat dwindles and dies out when a forest approaches middle age.

The club’s forester, Tom Brulé, is a great advocate of young forest, also known as early successional habitat. Helped by NRCS funding, the Tunxis Club is using patch cuts to boost populations of both game animals and wild creatures that are not hunted, and to improve overall forest health by adding a diversity of age-class and tree species to the woodland mix. Says club member Jack Rabuse, “We’ve been making 10-, 15-, 18-acre clearcuts. We do a clearcut every three or four years.” Such periodic habitat projects keep providing a supply of new young forest as small trees on new cuts gradually grow older.

Near the Tunxis Club are 2,200 acres owned by the Connecticut Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) Farmington River Watershed. (The commission supplies water for the city of Hartford.) A commercial timber harvest on MDC land in 2014 has created another potential habitat patch for New England cottontails, this one 18 acres in area. Both the MDC and the Tunxis Club habitats are within dispersing range of existing cottontail populations. In 2007, the MDC also did a 100-acre seed-tree cut to the southeast, where MassWildlife’s Piché recently found fecal pellets left by New England cottontails.

Western Massachusetts Bird Dog Club

On the club’s 200 acres near Granville, Piché and her NRCS partners planned – and the NRCS helped partially fund – 30 acres of timber cutting during the fall of 2013. Loggers harvested red maple, aspen, white pine, hemlock, yellow birch, white birch, and black cherry, yielding wood chips, sawlogs, and firewood, helping to boost the region’s economy.

Brushpiles make good winter hideouts for New England cottontails.

Brushpile built during timber harvest on the Western Massachusetts Bird Dog Club will provide great cover for New England cottontails during winter./C. Fergus

The cut areas surround and expand a strip of old fields and young forest. Club members don’t hunt cottontails: They raise ring-necked pheasants and chukar partridges, which are released into suitable habitat on the club’s grounds for hunting. The recent timber harvest was designed to help New England cottontails, but club members realize that the resulting young forest will also offer better hiding cover to the gamebirds they put out, improving their sport, and will also benefit other kinds of wildlife. The two cutover tracts and the old-field area lie just to the east of an extensive shrub swamp, offering a nice mosaic of habitat types that should help New England cottontails, snowshoe hares, moose, and a broad variety of songbirds.

During the timber harvest, loggers used mechanized equipment to quickly and efficiently build one to two brushpiles per acre, by criss-crossing the trunks of some of the cut trees and topping the structures with smaller limbs. New England cottontails hide in brushpiles during winter; the heaped-up brush provides insulation from the cold and helps shield the rabbits from predators like hawks, owls, and foxes.

An Integrated Habitat Patchwork

In addition to the two hunting clubs’ and the MDC’s habitat projects, two private landowners in the neighborhood have also taken advantage of NRCS funding to make 5-acre patch cuts, in which all the large trees are removed, often for firewood. These patches mimic the effects of storms toppling small areas of woods and opening up gaps in the forest canopy. New England cottontails and other wildlife home in on the young trees that quickly begin to fill in such gaps.

Says Piché, “An integrated patchwork of different kinds of habitats, large and small, with ample young forest and shrubland as part of the mix, allows wildlife to move more freely across the land. Areas of thick regrowing trees support individual animals’ daily movements, migration, dispersal of young, and colonization of new habitats as they become available, either through natural events or humans’ habitat management efforts.”

Funding and Partners

Tunxis Club, Western Massachusetts Bird Dog Club, Connecticut Metropolitan District Commission, MassWildlife, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Management Institute.