By Jeff Hoover
Ohio certified volunteer naturalist
The spring season is upon us, bringing warmer weather, longer days and new-born baby animals, including bunnies.
The Eastern Cottontail Rabbit is our native species. Their range extends throughout the Eastern United States outside of New England and northern New York. They make their home in fields and shrubs on the edge of forests and nest in grassy shelters called forms. Underground burrows are dug for shelter in winter. Eastern cottontail rabbits are generally solitary animals and can become fiercely territorial with others of their species.
These rabbits are about 1.5 feet long and weigh between 2 and 3 pounds. Eastern cottontails are full grown within six months of being born. They have tan to brown-gray coats with white bellies and fluffy white tufts of tails. Other characteristics are long ears and large, strong hind legs that propel them in hopping.
Eastern cottontails are most active at dawn and dusk, seeking shelter during daylight hours and sleeping at night. Contrary to popular belief, cottontails remain active during winter rather than hibernating. In fact, their distinctive tracks can easily be seen on snow-covered ground in the winter.
During winter, they eat bark and buds from woody plants; in other seasons they consume various leafy green plants as well as fruits and grasses. They may even visit your vegetable garden. Plants from the rose family are particularly favored food sources, including ornamental roses, as well as blackberries and raspberries (both known as brambles). The winter damage from rabbits has been excessive around the Mahoning Valley this winter. Rabbit damage is many times at a higher level on plants than you expect. This is because they can stand on their back legs when feeding. The snow pack during winter gave them an even higher range.
Rabbit damage is very clean-cut on branches, at a 45-degree angle. This is due to their having top and bottom teeth. Damage that looks like tearing would be from deer. Damage to bark on roses and brambles will look like gnawing where bark is partially or completely removed around the stem.
A male rabbit is called a buck and females are called does. Rabbits breed from February to September and the young, called kits, are born a month later. A doe is able to have three litters of four to six kits a year, and she can have her first litter as early as seven months of age. In the wild, eastern cottontails live for about three years, as they have many natural predators. Whether you consider cottontails visitors to your home or just damaging nuisances to your plants, finding a nest tells us spring has arrived.
Learn more at http://go.osu.edu/rabbits.