If a fresh coating of snow falls overnight, I know that even if we get outdoors before sunrise there will be many cottontail rabbit tracks in our yard and neighborhood.
The critters are the most active from early evening into morning. The tracks of a rabbit are unlike those of any other animal. Their gait is a series of hops and leaps about one to 10 feet at a time. Their smaller front feet hit the ground first, and as the cottontail bounds, the larger hind feet track ahead of the front feet. Speed is similar to a dog’s or fox’s for about a quarter-mile.
But the cottontail has its challenges. Each year about 80% of Minnesota’s population dies from disease, weather, and predators such as coyotes, dogs, wild cats, birds of prey, and our human machinery. (In captivity they can live up to 8 years.)
Cottontails usually escape by dodging abruptly and doubling back to home base, where they are familiar with every cluster of shrubs, brush pile or patch of tall grass that offers protection. Each cottontail has its own home territory, usually fewer that 5 acres, which it seldom leaves.
During the day, several hours are spent hunched motionless in one of their sitting places in heavy grass or thickets, hollow logs and even drain pipes. They do not burrow, but may use dugouts made by other animals. Natural food for the cottontails is green vegetation in the growing season and the twigs and bark of small trees and shrubs in the winter.
The eastern cottontail rabbit is native to parts of extreme southern Canada, through most of the eastern United States and down into parts of Mexico and Central America. It is noticeably absent from much of northern Minnesota. They prefer partly open brush areas, wooded swamps, forest edges, and wooded fencerows, but avoid prairie, closed forest and intensively managed agricultural land. However, they do well in city residential areas where there is adequate cover.
Cottontails weigh 2 to 4 pounds. Their fur is mostly brown and gray, with white underparts and a white tuft of a tail. The large eyes, set on the sides of the head, together can see almost a full 360-degree circle. At rest, the long ears lie flat on the back but they are raised and turned from side to side when any hint of danger threatens.
The cottontail is solitary, probably averaging about one rabbit to 2 or 3 acres over much of southern Minnesota. Adults associate only for breeding. In this area, females initially breed in March and bear their first litter about 30 days later. Between early spring and late summer, each doe rears about three litters averaging five young in each.
Jim Gilbert’s observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.