Behavior and Feeding
Day to Day
With its eyes located on the sides of its head, a rabbit has excellent peripheral vision that takes in a wide field of view. Large ears and keen hearing let a rabbit listen closely to its surroundings to detect danger. A cottontail generally will hop from place to place, but it can put on a burst of speed and dodge quickly when fleeing a predator. A fox or coyote chasing a cottontail usually focuses on the rabbit’s white bobbing tail – when the rabbit suddenly stops and crouches, or ducks into a hiding place, its tail is no longer visible, and the predator may lose track of its prey.
New England cottontails spend the day resting quietly on the ground, hidden by dense weeds, shrubs, and young trees. At dawn and dusk they move about for several hours feeding; rabbits can also be active at night. Home ranges of individual New England cottontails vary from 0.5 to 8 acres, with males’ ranges larger than those of females.
In summer cottontails eat grasses, sedges, clovers, and the shoots, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds of many different plants. Their favorites include goldenrod, plantain, chickweed, sheep sorrel, buttercup, smartweed, wild strawberry, cinquefoil, and violet.
After autumn frosts kill green plants, rabbits switch to eating bark, twigs, and buds. Among the woody plants they feed on: blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and willow. They also eat winterberry holly, maleberry, silky dogwood, native rose species, multiflora rose, spirea, chokeberry, sumac, hazelnut, fox grape, and greenbrier. In winter, snow on the ground may cover up lower vegetation but it lets rabbits reach higher to access other foods. New England cottontails eat seedlings and shoots of birch, maple, aspen, apple, cherry, oak, hickory, and other trees.