Breeding and Lifespan
Gradually increasing day length in spring spurs the onset of reproduction. Males chase each other to establish dominance. In encounters between the sexes, a female may at first face off in a threat posture and strike out at a male with her forepaws. As courtship proceeds, the two sexes may jump over one another, or one rabbit may leap into the air while the other darts beneath it. Breeding occurs from late March into August and September; during that span, a healthy female may produce several litters of young.
Before giving birth, a mother cottontail makes a nest by digging a depression in the ground about 5 inches wide and 4 inches deep. She lines the depression with grass and fur from her body, then adds a covering of twigs and leaves. Nests are built at night, in brush or among dense vegetation on the forest floor.
After a roughly four-week gestation period, the mother gives birth in the nest. A typical litter has five or six young. Cottontails are born with their eyes shut. At intervals, the mother goes off to feed and then sneaks back to the nest to nurse her babies. The young develop very quickly and go off on their own about two weeks after birth. Females can breed and become pregnant again soon after delivering a litter.
How Long Do Rabbits Live?
Rabbits are short-lived; probably none die of old age. Research conducted on eastern cottontails suggests that only about 25 percent of individuals survive for two years, with the average lifespan about 15 months. Mortality rates and lifespans for New England cottontails are probably similar.
Rabbits are an important food source for many predators. Coyotes, foxes, bobcats, fishers, weasels, hawks, and owls all kill and eat rabbits. In recent years, populations of coyotes and red foxes have increased throughout the New England cottontail’s range. These adaptable predators can live in areas where development has fragmented the landscape. Biologists studying New England cottontails in southern New Hampshire found that predation by coyotes and red foxes was the most common cause of death among the radio-equipped rabbits they monitored.
Living in extensive areas of thick young forest and shrubland habitat makes it less likely that a cottontail will become a predator’s meal -- and more likely that a population of New England cottontails will persist in a given area over the years.