Plants & Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: April 2017

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Every year from spring to mid-summer, my dogs stumble upon a rabbit’s nest or two in my backyard. Luckily, my dogs leave the baby rabbits alone, so no harm has befallen them. Last summer, I became curious about these little creatures. How do they grow so fast, seemingly without an adult feeding them or tending to their needs?

I decided to answer my own question with a camera system, equipped with a motion detector and four wireless flash units, set up just to the right of the rabbit’s nest. I anxiously waited for the next morning to see the results. But it was another five days before I finally captured images of an adult female rabbit nursing her babies.

The eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) has long ears, large hind legs, shorter front legs, and it features a distinctive fluffy, cotton-ball tail for which it is named. The cottontail is a medium-sized rabbit, weighing about 2–3¼ pounds, with a length of 14–19 inches. The color of its upper coat varies from reddish- to grayish-brown, while its under coat is grayish-white.

They are fairly common in Missouri. However, numbers have been declining since 1955 due to habitat loss. Eastern cottontails are found near farms, typically in and around fields, pastures, and open woods. Seldom found in deep woods, cottontails forage in open areas and use brush piles, shrubby plants, and burrows or dens for escape, shelter, and resting cover.

They do not dig their own dens (other than nest holes), but use burrows dug by other species, such as woodchucks. Cover is extremely important for the survival and abundance of eastern cottontails. They are also found in suburban areas if adequate food and cover are near.

Rabbits feed almost entirely on plants. The three most preferred foods are bluegrass, wheat, and white clover. During winter, cottontails travel greater distances and eat buds, twigs, bark, and sprouts of shrubs, vines, and trees to survive. They are also fond of garden fare, such as peas and lettuce.

Breeding season is from mid-February through September. Males will mate with more than one female. A female could produce five litters per year, with one to 12 young, called kits, per litter. Most nests are about 5 inches in height on average and are concealed in grasses or weeds lined with fur.

Kits are born completely blind with a very fine coat of hair. Their eyes begin to open after four to seven days. They begin to move out of the nest by 12 to 16 days, and are completely weaned and independent by four to five weeks. Females do not stay in the nest with the kits, but return to the nest to nurse them, usually twice a day.

After several trials and errors, I finally was able to capture images of an adult female cottontail rabbit nursing her babies at 2 a.m. She paid no attention to my camera as it continued to shoot, capturing some of the most intimate moments of a mom tending to her babies. The female nursed her babies for a good 10–15 minutes, and covered the nest back with fur before leaving them alone for the next day. It gave me a new perspective on nocturnal animals and their secretive life.

—Story and photograph by Noppadol Paothong

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler