Survival Depends on Habitat

Habitat Provides Essential Food and Cover

Rabbit hidden in habitat

Slightly left of center, a cottontail huddles in prime summer habitat./USFWS

Ideal habitat for New England cottontails consists of dense shrubs or thickly regrowing young trees. (Such cover is often called "early successional habitat" or young forest.) Cottontails also use open areas with grasses and other low plants that provide food and cover in summer. Such openings need to be close to thick shrubby or woody cover where the rabbits can hide from predators in winter and shelter from cold and snowy weather. (Rabbits also hide in brushpiles, crevices in stone walls, and woodchuck burrows.)

The main threat to the New England cottontail is the loss of its habitat to human development and forest succession, and the lack of disturbance-causing events to naturally create new patches of young forest.

As an area of woodland grows older, small trees get larger and taller, their leafy crowns knitting together and preventing light from reaching the forest floor. The shade causes low-growing shrubs and other plants to become thin and finally die out. This natural process is taking place throughout the New England cottontail's range, as uniform, middle-aged forests continue to reclaim the land. With fewer acres of low, dense growth providing food and protection from predators, the New England cottontail's population has plummeted.

Studies have shown that rabbits living in habitat patches smaller than 5 acres tend to be in poorer physical condition than those inhabiting larger patches. For longterm survival, a local population of 10 rabbits needs at least 25 acres of connected high-quality young forest or shrubland. They also need corridors of habitat that young cottontails can use when leaving the areas where they were born and dispersing into other areas of good habitat. Brushy powerlines, railroad rights-of-way, and shrubby roadsides offer such dispersal corridors. Highways, rivers, mature forest lacking a shrub understory, and developed areas act as barriers that prevent cottontails from dispersing successfully and finding new areas of habitat. Small populations isolated from other cottontails run the risk of becoming less genetically diverse and less healthy and fit for survival.

Brown thrashers also need young-forest habitat

Brown thrashers also use New England cottontail habitat./E. Guthro

Biologists, conservationists, and landowners are working to save the New England cottontail by creating habitat in areas that still have rabbits. Demonstration areas showcase the different techniques that can be used to make and manage young forest and shrubland.

One ambitious regionwide effort is the new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, which will preserve and create young forest and shrubland in areas where cottontails are found.

The New England cottontail is considered an "umbrella species." This means that when we make habitat for cottontails, we're also helping many other animals – mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians - that need the same kind of habitat.

Scientists have developed Best Management Practices for creating and renewing New England cottontail habitat. A good introduction for landowners interested in making habitat is the Young Forest Guide published by the Wildlife Management Institute.