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Eastern Cottontail

Sylvilagus floridanus

Eastern cottontails escape from predators by quickly hopping away in a zig-zag pattern. (Carly & Art/ Flickr)
Eastern cottontails escape from predators by quickly hopping away in a zig-zag pattern. (Carly & Art/ Flickr)

The eastern cottontail is a brownish, medium-sized rabbit that lives in fields, farms, woods and backyards throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Appearance:

The eastern cottontail has mostly brown fur guarded by long, coarse gray and black hairs. Its fur is shorter and browner in summer and longer and grayer in winter. It has a white belly and a fluffy, white tail. It has long ears; big, dark eyes; and often has a white spot on its forehead. It has large hind legs and feet. The eastern cottontail grows 15 to 18 inches in length and weighs no more than 3 pounds.

Habitat:

These rabbits are found in farms, woods, parks, fields, backyards and similar areas. They are mostly nocturnal and nearly always live alone.

Range:

Found throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, they stay within a home range of about 5 to 8 acres.

Feeding:

The eastern cottontail feeds on many plants, including clover, sprouts, grasses, sedges, vines and shrubs. It gets its water from the plants it eats. It usually feeds just after dawn and sunset.

Predators:

Hawks, owls, weasels and red foxes all prey on cottontails. Humans hunt cottontails for their meat and fur. The cottontail escapes from predators by either quickly zig-zagging across a field or slowly creeping away while staying low to the ground.

Voice:

The cottontail makes many sounds, including cries, grunts and squeals.

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

Mating occurs several times between February and September. Females can produce up to seven litters of 3 to 5 young each year. The rabbits build fur-lined nests of dried grasses and leaves. Gestation lasts 25 to 28 days. Young are born blind and helpless; their eyes open in about 4 to 5 days. Females nurse their young 1 to 2 times per day, but otherwise take little care of them. Young leave the nest within seven weeks. The female gives birth to another litter soon after her previous litter leaves. Young reach sexual maturity by 2 to 3 months old. Cottontails usually do not live longer than three years.

Other Facts:

  • A quick runner that can reach speeds of up to 18 miles per hour
  • Has excellent vision, hearing and sense of smell
  • Gardeners, farmers and foresters consider cottontails to be a nuisance
  • Tends to be intolerant of other cottontails, which is why it usually lives alone
  • Can be confused with the marsh rabbit. You can distinguish an eastern cottontail by its long ears and fluffy white tail. Also, eastern cottontails are extremely common throughout the Bay watershed, while marsh rabbits are only found in marshes and swamps in southeastern Virginia.

Sources and Additional Information:

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