Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Lagomorpha
Family: Leporidae
Genus: Sylvilagus

Eastern Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are among the most common mammals in Maryland.

Physical Characteristics

Cottontails are named for their short brown and white tails. Cottontails have white undersides, but the rest of the coat is made up of multicolored hairs having brown, black, and tan bars, giving the cottontail a brown, faintly speckled appearance. The cottontail remains brown throughout the winter. Females tend to be a bit larger than the males, with a range in weight from 2 to 4 pounds. Eastern Cottontail Rabbits have large, elongated incisor teeth that are adapted for gnawing, but are not classified as rodents, Instead they are classified as lagomorphs because of a second pair of smaller incisors located just behind the upper, larger pair.
Rabbit young are born furless, blind, and helpless. Cottontail Rabbits prefer wooded areas and open field habitats. Their eyes are located on the sides of their heads for wide peripheral vision. Their ears are pivotable, relatively large, and slightly cupped so that faint sounds can be detected. Cottontail Rabbits are important prey for a wide variety of predators.

Abundance and Distribution

Cottontail Rabbits are found throughout Maryland. On the average, only about 25 percent of the young live 1 full year. Including adult mortality, about 85 percent of the population die each year. Predators, such as red and gray foxes, kill many rabbits, but weather, disease, parasites, and the social behavior of the rabbits also suppress their numbers. At high population levels during breeding seasons, parasites and diseases, such as tularemia, spread quickly as a result of the increased incidence of contact between individuals.
Through a combination of these factors, nest survival averages only 50 percent. In addition, cottontails are infested routinely with a multitude of external parasites such as fleas, fly bots, ticks, and lice and internal parasites as tapeworms, roundworms, and flukes.

Life History of Cottontail Rabbits

The mating season begins with the first warm days in late February and continues into September. Throughout the breeding season, dominant males maintain territories of 3 to 25 acres where they breed with the majority of receptive females. Other males live within such territories as long as they remain subordinate and accept the social hierarchy. During the nesting season, females defend a home territory of about 2 acres from other trespassing females.
Both the male and female exhibit wild, leaping courtship antics before breeding takes place. Males will readily breed with any receptive female and do not assist in the care and protection of the young.
Gestation lasts approximately 28 days, and the female is capable of mating again immediately after giving birth. Litter sizes typically range from three to seven, with three or four more typical. One mature, healthy female can have as many as five litters per breeding season. Nests consist of shallow depressions in the ground lined with a combination of hair plucked from the female's underside and dead grasses. Cottontails nest in a variety of places including open fields and thick patches of brush. A cap of fur and stems is also constructed over the nest as protection from the weather and for concealment from predators.
The newborns are about 4 inches long and weigh a mere approximately one ounce. Young cottontails need parental care and nursing for approximately 20 days after birth. Sexual maturity can occur at 3 months under ideal habitat conditions.


Summer. Timothy, clover, alfalfa, soybeans, wheat, rye, chickweed, goldenrod, fallen fruit, and garden crops, such as lettuce, peas, and beans.

Winter. Bark and twigs of such species as sumac, white and red oak, dogwood, sassafras, maple, rose, willow, apple, raspberry, and poison ivy.

Wild rabbits live about 15 months and raise 3 litters in a year with an average of 6 young.
Rabbits can devour a flower or vegetable garden eating entire rows of peas, beans, lettuce or beets. They do not seem to like corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. Their chewing can severely damage the stems and trunks of trees and shrubs.
Rabbits may carry tularemia, or rabbit fever. This disease is relatively rare in humans but can be contracted by handling an infected rabbit with bare hands or by eating insufficiently cooked rabbit meat.



PAGE UPDATED ON: 06/29/2005