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Br'er rabbit, wild rabbit, hot foot, bunny, or just cottontail, whatever you call him, he's still one of Indiana's top game animals.
The eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States and south through Mexico. In this range, there are 12 subspecies with only one native to Indiana, Sylvilagus floridanus mearnsii. The cottontail is reddish brown to gray along the back and sides, while the underside is gray to white. The underside of the tail is snow white and is very bright when the rabbit runs, thus the name “cottontail.”
The eastern cottontail is found throughout all of Indiana, from the heart of the cities to the deep forests. Tracks have been seen in the snow and mud around the State Office Building downtown Indianapolis. Populations are usually highest where food and cover are best. Better-drained areas often support above-average rabbit densities.
With the cottontail, spring comes very early as the first courting activity may be seen in January. The running, leaping, fighting, and mating increase through February, and by the first of March, most of the does have mated. Most of the courting activity is done during the early evening and about dawn. About 28 days after mating, the young are born, given a quick bath by the female and placed in the nest. The nest is usually located in a slight hole in the ground dug with the doe's forefeet. It is constructed of grass and leaves, and lined with fur pulled from the female's breast and abdomen. At birth, the young are furless, blind and weigh less than one ounce. Each usually has the white blaze on the forehead, characteristic of the cottontail. They are nursed each night soon after dark and again before dawn, with an occasional nip between these times.
Young rabbits grow extremely fast. By the end of the first week, they have their eyes open, and by the end of the second week, they are beginning to leave the nest and feed on green plants. During the nest few nights they may return to the nest to nurse, spending the day as tiny forms in the grass nearby. At this time they still weigh only about four ounces, but are well developed and able to survive on their own. And well they must, for the doe is able to mate again the same day the young are born and may be well on her way to having a second litter. Litters may range from three to nine, with four or five about average. Although capable of having six litters each summer, the usual number is three or four. By six months, the young have reached minimum adult weight and are hard to distinguish from adults. The cottontail's weight at maturity is 2 1/2 to three pounds.
Apple, willow, dogwood, hickory, rose, sumac, clover, corn, soybean - you name it, and the rabbit will probably eat it. Although some plants are favored foods, almost any plant, if it’s tender, will be eaten. In the spring, the rabbits feed on the new tender shoots of grass and clover. The young leaving the nest eat their first meal away from the doe by nibbling on the leaves of clover, grass and plantin. In the late fall and winter, when grasses have dried up or been covered with snow, the main diet is the bark of sprouts and seedlings grown the previous summer.
Cottontail numbers, like most animal populations, run in cycles of highs and lows. The population builds up to a very high level, then disease, strife and poor reproduction down to a low level. This low may continue for two or three years before a slow increase begins to bring numbers back to another high. Peak populations usually occur at intervals of about 10 years. Within this 10 year cycle, there may be local areas having highs and lows opposite to the overall state cycle. Also, some areas may hold a continued high or low for several years and not seem to go through the cycle change. Optimum food and cover and balance between the number produced and the number harvested by hunter, predator or disease may hold the population stable. Drastic changes in numbers grow to a high in August. The with peak of reproduction past, the rabbits begin to disappear. By the first of November, their numbers may be cut one-third or more, with another third lost by the beginning of the next breeding season. Thus, while some rabbits may live four or five years, the average life expectancy for young rabbits that survive to leave the nest is only about 11 months.
From the time the rabbit is born, he must fight hard for survival. Cold rains, predators, mowers and disease begins taking their toll. Average life expectancy at birth is only about four months. For those who survive to leave the nest and live on their own, the world holds more hazards. Today's high-speed highways take an ever-increasing number especially where the only available cover is roadside ditches.
Almost anyone who has found a newly planted seedling cut off or tree barked may consider the cottontail a pest; however, the rabbit gets blamed for some damage caused by mice, squirrels and other rodents. Several types of repellents have been used with mixed success. About the only sure method of preventing damage is by using one-half inch mesh hardware cloth or one inch mesh chicken netting cut 12 to 18 inches long. This is formed into a cylinder, placed around the seedling and forced into the ground to hold it upright. This will protect the seedling for several years from mice as well as rabbits.
White rabbits and other domestic rabbits make excellent pets; they become tame and allow children to handle them. Wild rabbits remain wild. Even those few that are raised by hand never really become tame. Wild rabbits, by nature, are timid animals and try to escape when handled and can do considerable damage with their hind feet in the process. Leave young rabbits where you find them. It is also illegal to posses wildlife without special permits.
Almost anyone who has found a newly planted seedling cut off or tree bark damaged may consider the cottontail a pest; however, the rabbit gets blamed for some damage caused by mice, squirrels and other rodents.
Several types of repellents have been used with mixed success. Many home remedies, such as rubber snakes, are suggested each year, each with varying success.
The only sure method of preventing damage to a sapling or bush is by using one-half inch mesh hardware cloth or one inch mesh chicken netting cut 12 to 18 inches long around the plant. Form this into a cylinder, placed around the seedling and forced into the ground to hold it upright. This will protect the seedling for several years from mice as well as rabbits. Commercial tree guards and wrapping are also available.
To protect your garden or berry patch, place a fence at least 2 feet high of chicken wire or strong hardware cloth with the bottom tight to the ground and buried a few inches. Be sure the mesh is 1 inch or smaller. Remove brush piles and other cover near the garden to make fewer areas for rabbits to hide.
Place a dome or cage of chicken wire over a small flower bed to allow vulnerable plants such as tulips to start growing before leaving them unprotected.
If you want to trap or shoot the rabbits, you will need a permit from the DNR, or you will need to use those methods legal only during the open hunting season (firearms can only be used where legal). Live cage-traps (wire or wood) that are baited with dried apples or dry ear corn can be effective in capturing cottontail rabbits.
Encouraging the rabbit’s natural enemies such as hawks, owls, and foxes can also help control the rabbits.
The only other rabbit native to Indiana is the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) found only in the swamp lowlands along the Ohio and Wabash rivers. It spends much of its time up on stumps and logs, and swims readily when pursued. The swamp rabbit is larger then the cottontail, reaching almost six pounds. It is currently protected in its historical range in southwestern Indiana.