Last week a friend sent me a photo of a baby cottontail small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. It had been lying, lifeless, on a welcome mat by the front door, courtesy of a neighbor’s cat. It reminded me that baby season, for better or worse, is underway.
Like many small mammals, cottontails breed early and often. And that’s a good thing because most medium-size predators eat them. Without cottontails, medium-size predators might disappear.
Fortunately, cottontails are good at eluding predators. When spooked from a hiding place, they escape in an erratic, zig-zag fashion and throw in a few unexpected leaps for good measure.
After peaking in early fall, cottontail populations are at their annual low point this time of year. But as winter ends and spring begins, cottontails bounce back.
Breeding begins in February. After a gestation period of about 30 days, the pregnant female digs a shallow hole in the ground. The nest, about the size of a clenched fist, slants about 6 inches into the ground. The female lines the nest with fur she plucks from her belly and covers the opening with grass, making it difficult to see from above. Nests usually are placed in stands of dense grass, but sometimes cottontails even sink their nests into well-manicured lawns. I find at least one every year.
Females typically give birth to four or five blind, naked young. They nurse their brood only at dawn and dusk and spend the rest of the day feeding or resting. After about a week in the nest, the young are fully furred, and their eyes and ears open. They leave the nest after 14 days. By the age of 1 month, the young are weaned and independent.
Meanwhile, mom has been busy. She mates shortly after giving birth, so she’s pregnant with a second brood while nursing the first. This is a major reason rabbits are so prolific. A single female might breed five or six times in a year and produce up to 35 babies. It’s no wonder the Easter bunny symbolizes rebirth. Eastern cottontails truly are born again – and again, and again and again.
Cottontails spend most of the day resting in a “form” – a well-worn depression on the surface of the ground. It’s usually nestled in a clump of dense grass in a thicket or under a brush pile.
Contrary to popular belief, cottontails do not dig burrows. They occasionally seek refuge in an abandoned groundhog den to escape predators or severe winter weather, but they spend most of their lives above ground.
Strict vegetarians, cottontails enjoy succulent greens such as dandelion leaves, clover and grasses as well as the bark of woody species such as raspberry, apple, black cherry and sumac. They can consume up to 40 percent of their body weight every day.
Evidence of rabbit damage on woody plants is easy to recognize. Their sharp incisors clip twigs cleanly and leave behind a distinct diagonal cut; deer tear twigs off and leave behind ragged edges.
Predators, parasites, disease and foul weather keep rabbit populations in check. Owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, weasels and feral dogs and cats take a heavy toll. Heavy spring rains wash out many nests each year. And nationwide, hunters kill millions annually.
But cottontails’ most serious long-term threat is habitat loss. Every new parking lot and subdivision means fewer cottontails. Modern farming methods that require ever larger fields to accommodate bigger machinery mean fewer fence rows, fewer odd corners and, ultimately, fewer cottontails.
And with regard to “Baby Season” – it may seem cruel, but adopt a hands-off policy; let nature take its course. Predators have to eat, too.
Happy Easter and good luck to cottontails everywhere.
Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, live online at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit Scott’s website, www.drshalaway.com, or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.