Habitat Ins and Outs
Keep it Thick
New England cottontails inhabit stands of thick shrubs and young trees interspersed with open areas of grasses and other low plants. With their innate fear of predators, New England cottontails rarely go farther than about 16 feet from protective cover of thickets and brush.
Biologists have learned that it is the height and density of vegetation, more than its species make-up, that determines whether it will make a good home for cottontails. Good habitat is at least several feet tall and thick enough that a person would have trouble walking through it. (Research suggests that it should have at least 40,000 to 50,000 woody stems per acre.) It also needs to provide food and cover for rabbits year-round.
Healthy young forest habitat sustains many kinds of plants. Cottontails feed on bark, twigs, leaves, buds, shoots, flowers, and fruits, with food selection varying through the seasons. Evergreen trees and shrubs can provide important shelter, especially in fall and winter.
Shrubs and vines that New England cottontails shelter among or feed upon include raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, winterberry holly, willow, maleberry, dogwood, native rose species, non-native multiflora rose, sumac, hazelnut, bayberry, and greenbrier. They feed on succulent greenery such as grasses, clovers, rushes, and sedges. In winter they turn to the bark, twigs, and buds of shrubs and young trees such as oaks, maples, aspen, birches, apple, and hawthorn.
Carefully focusing on selected areas, conservationists use heavy-duty machines, controlled fires, and timber harvests to regenerate patches of shrubland and young forest, removing middle-aged or older trees and letting young trees and shrubs sprout to provide the fresh, new habitat needed by cottontails and many other kinds of wildlife. Check out this front-seat view of a "brontosaurus" machine clearing trees to renew habitat.
How Big Should Habitat Areas Be?
An area of rabbit habitat must be large enough to provide food and cover year-round. New England cottontails are twice as likely to be killed by predators when they occupy patches 5 acres or smaller, compared to ones 12 acres or larger. Habitat blocks of at least 25 acres, linked to other similar-sized patches, are necessary for local populations to survive.
When cover gets too old and thin (or gets bulldozed for development), remnant patches of habitat become disconnected. Small islands of habitat separated by zones of poor-quality habitat will cause local cottontail populations to become isolated. At that point, it gets harder and harder for males and females to find each other and breed. Today, many of the habitat patches where New England cottontails have been found are less than 7.5 acres and hold only a few rabbits. Such small populations are too small to survive over time. Find out how conservationists and scientists are learning more about cottontail genetics and how populations must connect to one another to persist.
Conservation partners, including many private landowners, are creating habitat demonstration area to help New England cottontails and other young forest wildlife.