Wildlife Species Guide
<< Back to Index | Description
The most distinctive features of the eastern cottontail are its long ears,
long hind legs and short white tail. An adult cottontail is about 15 to 18
inches long and weighs between two and three pounds. It varies in color
from gray to brown and has a rust-colored patch on the back of its neck.
Although eight species of cottontail rabbits occur in the United States,
only two inhabit Nebraska. The eastern cottontail is the most widely
occurring cottontail in the United States and is found throughout Nebraska.
The desert cottontail occurs only in the western part of the state,
primarily west of Ogallala. Neither species occurs in the vast dry uplands
of the Sandhills, but both can be found in the bottomland habitat
Habitat and home
A cottontail is attracted to field and cover
edges and early successional, or weedy, habitats. The eastern
cottontail can be found almost anywhere two types of cover
meet; however, it prefers a mixture of grass, forbs such as wildflowers
or weeds, and dense thorny shrubs. It most prefers
ground cover that is a mixture of open areas and dense vegetation.
In Nebraska, fence rows, shelterbelts, streamsides, and
roadsides are locations where this type of habitat may be found.
The Conservation Reserve Program has allowed for the
development of excellent habitat in which weeds grow before
planted grasses become established. However, after two years
these fields become pure stands of grass which will not support
A cottontail must rely on shrubs or woody cover for escape
cover, and the denser and thornier that cover is, the better the
rabbit likes it. Succulent forbs are also necessary for nutrition.
Habitat that is capable of supporting cottontails is decreasing
throughout the rabbit's range, as a result of aging and deteriorating
shelterbelts, the removal of hedge rows, the farming of
roadsides, and the over grazing of pastures, streambanks and
All habitat components needed by an animal are found in its
home range. The female cottontail's home range is one to 15
acres in size, while the male's may be as much as 100 acres.
A rabbit uses above-ground structures called "fomms" and
underground holes such as those of badger, prairie dog and
woodchuck for escape and shelter. Fomms are pockets the rabbit
creates by trampling down small areas of grass and small shrubs.
It uses fomms at night and during daytime rest periods throughout
the year, even during the reproductive period. After her litter is
born, the female cottontail stays in a fomm near the nest, only
visiting her nest at dawn and dusk. The cottontail uses underground
holes for emergency escape throughout the year and
during winter for shelter.
A rabbit nest is a shallow depression that the female digs and
lines with grass and fur. Because the female does not stay at the
nest after the litter is born, she covers the young with grass and
fur to help protect them from predators while she is away.
You may see a cottontail at any time of the day or
night but the rabbit is most active at dusk and dawn. Its activity
during midday is greatly decreased unless the sky is heavily
Different behavior patterns are used by a threatened rabbit.
If the danger is far away, it may freeze and remain motionless,
using its background as camouflage. When the threat is near, the
rabbit moves quickly to nearby thick cover such as a thicket or
brush pile. When cornered, it may thump its pursuer with a hind
foot to stun it and then make a break for freedom. A rabbit may
make a shrill, high-pitched squeal when it is captured.
A cottontail may easily go into shock when captured. A
person who finds it necessary to handle a cottontail should cover
the captured or injured rabbit's eyes and handle it very slowly
A cottontail produces two types of droppings -- hard and
brown or soft and green. The softer pellets are eaten again to
further break down food. This is called coprophagy.
Basically a vegetarian, the cottontail eats primarily
grasses and legumes, such as clover and lespedezas, during the
growing season. A young rabbit consumes a considerable
amount of forbs such as dandelions, ragweed and prickly lettuce.
It eats numerous crops such as soybeans, wheat and corn, and
during the non-growing season, young shoots and buds. When
more preferred foods are scarce its diet may also include twigs
and bark, and when other foods are not available, it may resort
to eating non-plant foods such as snails or carrion.
The breeding season begins in February in Nebraska. With a gestation
period of 28 days and the capability of a female to become pregnant
the day after giving birth, litters
can be produced on a monthly basis. By late June this efficiency
breaks down and the female may not breed for several days or
not at all after giving birth. A female cottontail may have five to
seven litters of four to five young in one year. Therefore, many
rabbits can be produced in a year that has suitable weather for
food availability and nest survival. In several studies the number
of juvenile cottontails taken by hunters in the fall compared to
the number of adult rabbits is 80-85%, which is an indication of
very high reproductive rates.
Young rabbits are an easy-to-catch and plentiful food for
many predator species from weasels to coyotes to birds of prey,
making them a very important part of the food chain. As vegetative
habitat dries in the fall, escape cover is reduced and the
rabbits become more and more exposed to predators. Many of
the young produced each spring and summer are not alive by
winter and even fewer are available for breeding the next spring.
This is the typical reproductive strategy of such a highly used
prey species -- produce large numbers of young quickly to ensure
that some will survive to reproduce the next year.
Predation is the primary direct cause of mortality
for the cottontail. Poor habitat conditions, disease and severe
weather can all increase its chances of being taken by a predator.
Numerous parasites and diseases affect rabbits. The bacterial
disease tularemia can cause a rabbit to be more susceptible to
predation by making it less able to detect potentially dangerous
movement or to evade capture.
Severe winter storms can cover food sources to the point that
a rabbit has to eat low-quality food such as tree bark. During
prolonged periods of severe weather, the rabbit's physical condition
may decrease to the point that it is unable to evade capture.
The cottontail rabbit is important as a game
animal across its entire range. In the United States, deer are the
only game more pursued by hunters than the rabbit or hare. In
Nebraska more pheasants, quail and doves are harvested each
year than cottontails, which may indicate that rabbits are an
under utilized resource. Since the mid-1980s an average of
150,000 cottontails have been taken by approximately 26,000
hunters each year.
Unfortunately, many rabbit carcasses are needlessly discarded by hunters
each year due to the presence of two parasites
which do not affect man. The larvae of botflies (commonly
called warbles) are sometimes found under a rabbit's skin. If the
hunter encounters a warble in a rabbit or finds an abscess under
the skin where a warble has recently left the rabbit, he can
remove that area of the meat and still use the rest of the carcass,
provided the meat is cooked properly.
Tapeworm cysts are also found in rabbits. These are sacs of
clear fluid that contain small white floating objects and are found
attached to the rabbit's liver, intestines and occasionally to its
lungs. These cysts are the larval stage in the life cycle of the dog
tapeworm. If a dog or wild canine consumes one of these larvae
it may develop into a tapeworm, but tapeworms do not develop
in humans from these larvae. All of the larvae are normally
removed when the rabbit is dressed and any overlooked cysts are
destroyed during the cooking process. This disease is often
confused with "white spots on the liver" that are known to be
indicative of tularemia.
Tularemia is a bacterial disease of rabbits that is transmittible
to man, usually through openings in the skin. Hunters who notice
small white or yellow spots on the surface of the rabbit's liver
when they are field dressing it should discard the entire rabbit
immediately. During the early stages of the disease the liver can
appear normal, though the infected rabbit may behave oddly,
move slowly or be easily captured. It is a good idea to wear
rubber gloves when dressing a rabbit and it is important to always
cook rabbit meat thoroughly. Tularemia is transmitted between
rabbits by fleas and ticks. Rabbits die from the disease, so it is
not a problem once there has been a good hard frost and the
temperature remains cool. A hard frost kills ticks and fleas which
carry the disease, and a rabbit infected prior to the freeze will
normally die within a few days of contracting the disease.
Management for the cottontail is habitat related. Management can be
accomplished by maintaining small areas of different types of cover
to develop the maximum amount of edge (places where two or more
different types of vegetation meet). It is necessary to have grass
in and around escape cover that is of sufficient height for the
cottontail to hide its nests and build forms. Large fields of grass
are not as useful as grass intermixed with low-growing thick woody cover.
It is a good idea to mow trails in areas of dense vegetation, and moderate
grazing and prescribed burning are useful in suitable situations.
Planting a variety of shrub species, particularly thorny shrubs,
is recommended, combined with a maintenance program to keep
the shrub growing low to the ground and spreading out from its
center. If naturally growing escape cover is currently unavailable,
brushpiles can be used as an immediate but temporary
substitute until planted cover is established. An individual
brush-pile becomes useless as escape cover after a couple of