Cottontail rabbits have always been one of the most popular small game animals in Missouri. Many sportsmen and landowners enjoy seeing rabbits on their land throughout the year. Given the proper habitat conditions, cottontail populations can flourish in a relatively short period of time. Having hundreds of acres of land, or months of prep time to manage for them isn’t always a necessity. In fact, much of a cottontail’s life is spent on a small area of land, 1 acre or less in most cases. They tend to thrive in a diverse array of early successional habitats that exist in many of Missouri’s landscapes such as smaller brushy fields, brushy/shrubby fencerows, and managed native warm season grass fields with thicket borders or brushy edges.
Landowners managing habitat for cottontails should think of two things: cover and food. Managing habitat for food for rabbits is fairly simple. Rabbits in general feed on a wide variety of vegetation, especially younger tender bits of grasses, forbs, wildflowers, seedlings and even your favorite garden plants. For best results, you should have a variety of plants that are available year round in one form or another. Also, food plots should be in close proximity to areas of cover vegetation to provide protection from predators.
I like to spend a crisp early spring day with a chainsaw and working on some simple edge-feathering along the field timbered edges or doing a practice we have termed “Chop and Drop.” This technique can be completed in less than 1 or 2 hours’ time with a chainsaw and it makes a huge difference in the quantity and quality of available cover around your field edges for rabbits and small game. To do this, find a suitable location along your timber by picking several less desirable trees on your small field edge and as close to other grassy or brushy areas as possible. Then, either hinge-cut them down ¾ of the way through their diameter to let them fall slowly over to become a “living brush pile” or cut them all the way thru and let them lay where they drop, hence the term “Chop and Drop.” Both techniques work well depending on your preference of how you want the final product to look on your land and what types of trees you have to work with.
Adjacent to these edge-feathered or newly created “chop and drop” areas, a small thin strip of early successional grasses/forbs and desirable weeds can be created by light disking in early spring. Disk 12 to 15 ft wide strips to allow for new younger vegetation to come up thru the disturbance you have just created. Alternate your disking with an undisturbed area of existing grasses or habitat that is approximately twice as wide as the disked strip. If you have additional space available in the field, this entire process can be repeated again with an alternating strip disked area, thus creating an additional internal edge for the rabbits to utilize.
To maximize the amount of available food for rabbits throughout the year, a small ¼ to ½ acre area (depending on the size of the area you have to work with) can be seeded with either red or white clover near the center of the managed habitat zone. To assist in clover growth, lightly cover the newly planted area but do not bury the seed too deeply in the soil. Dragging a small piece of chain-link fence or smaller “chop and drop” tree behind an ATV works well to accomplish this task.
As you can see with just a few simple steps and a couple of hours invested in habitat management, you can create excellent habitat areas for rabbits to flourish. And, as an added bonus, you just might help other game species that require similar habitat conditions, such as quail, turkeys, and other non-game species such as songbirds. So, this early spring, get out your chainsaw, put on your work gloves and create some “Rabbit-tat” on your land.