The eastern cottontail is a medium-sized rabbit with long ears, large hind legs, shorter front legs, a short fluffy tail, and soft fur. The upperparts vary from reddish to grayish brown sprinkled with black; when fluffed, the fur of the rump is grayish. The back of the neck is bright rust-colored. The underparts are grayish white except for a brownish chest; the tops of the hind feet are tan to whitish.
Similar species: The only other rabbits in Missouri are the swamp rabbit and black-tailed jackrabbit. Of the two, swamp rabbits are most similar to cottontails, but swamp rabbits are generally larger, with relatively shorter and rounder ears, somewhat coarser fur with a yellowish cast, particularly in the rump, and more black mottling; they have tawny rump fur, visible when fluffed; the tops of the hind feet are reddish brown; and the back of the neck is only slightly rust-colored. Swamp rabbits occur only in southeast Missouri and are an imperilled species in our state.
Black-tailed jackrabbits look very different from cottontails. They have lanky bodies, with ears, hind legs, and feet very large in proportion to the body. Formerly scattered in southwestern Missouri, the are now endangered within our state and may be extirpated. Another species, the white-tailed jackrabbit, used to occur in northwest Missouri but was declared extirpated from our state in 1990.
Total length: 14–19 inches; tail length: 1½–3 inches; weight: 2–3¼ pounds.
Habitat and Conservation
Eastern cottontails prefer open brushy or forest-border cover. While they may venture into the open, they usually don’t go far from brushy or dense, weedy cover. The cottontail's usual home is a resting place or "form" concealed in a dense clump of grass, under a brush pile, or in a thicket. Providing good habitat is the key to increasing cottontail populations. If you wish to discourage them in gardens and other plantings, be sure to follow The Wildlife Code of Missouri. Cottontails are an important game species.
Rabbits feed almost entirely on plants. Their three favorite foods during all seasons are bluegrass, wheat, and white clover. Other choice foods, when available, are red clover, Korean lespedeza, small and common crabgrass, timothy, and common chess. They also relish certain sedges, forbs, and cultivated plants. To survive during heavy snow cover, they eat buds, twigs, bark, and sprouts of shrubs, vines, and trees.
Cottontails are common in most years, but their numbers fluctuate with the availability of cover and habitat. Their numbers have been declining since 1955 due to habitat loss.
Breeding season is from mid-February through September. A female can produce 8 litters per year, though the average is fewer. Nests are shallow cavities in the ground lined with grass and fur. There are 1–9 young per litter. At birth, the young are about 5 inches long, mostly naked, with eyes and ears closed. After a week, they become completely furred and their eyes and ears open. They leave the nest 13–16 days after birth. Most breed for the first time in the spring following their birth. In spite of the large number of young produced each year, only a very few survive to breed. There are reports of marked wild individuals reaching 5 years of age and of a captive eastern cottontail still living at 9 years of age. The potential life is at least 10 years.
Around 300,000 rabbits are harvested annually in Missouri, most of these being cottontails, with swamp rabbits a much smaller percentage. At 1½ pounds of meat per rabbit, this is a sizeable amount.
The fur, however, is not durable and thus has little commercial value. It is mostly used in making coats, hats, and clothing accessories like scarves, and for trimming and lining coats and gloves.
Land use changes that affect plant composition on pastures and reduce the availability of brushy fence rows and winter forage have contributed to decreased populations of eastern cottontail.
It has been estimated that 10 cottontails are killed annually per 1 mile of road in Missouri.
Cottontails sometimes damage the edges of crop fields, and in winter when other foods are scarce, they may damage orchard or ornamental trees. Cottontail cuttings are easily identified because they are made at a 45-degree angle from the vertical axis.
When cottontails are readily available as food for wild predators, there is less predation on other game species and livestock.
Some 44 percent of newborn cottontails die during their first month of life, and only 20 to 25 percent live to 1 full year. About 85 percent of the population dies each year. Their bodies become food for predators and scavengers.
By converting plant food into animal matter, rabbits constitute an important link in the food chain of life.
Rabbits serve as an intermediate host for many internal parasites of carnivorous species that feed upon them.
Cottontails often use woodchuck burrows for escape and shelter.
Signs and Tracks
- 1 inch long; generally round overall
- 4 toes; indistinct.
- 3½ inches long; generally oblong
- 4 toes; indistinct.
- Tracks are positioned in clusters of four, with hind feet side by side about 4 inches apart, and forefeet positioned behind them, with one forefoot ahead of the other.
- The distance between groups of prints is 1–7 feet, varying with speed and length of hop.
- Browsing signs include stems of plants cut diagonally, cleanly, by a number of bites.
- Droppings are spherical, resembling dark brown peas, often seen in piles.
- Rabbit tracks are often noticed in snow.
- Urine markings in snow can be orange or reddish and may be mistaken for blood. The color is apparently caused by their diet.
- Commonly confused with squirrel tracks.