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