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Getting to know the Eastern cottontail

In Minnesota the most commonly seen mammal even in urban environments is the Eastern cottontail. Cottontails are not rodents but are a member of a group of animals called lagomorphs. Cottontails like to live on the edges of open fields, meadows, areas of dense high grass, in wood thickets, along fence rows, forest edges, and borders of marshy areas. In urban areas they like places where they can hide like shrubs and the foliage of gardens. In the summer, they feed almost entirely on tender grasses and herbs. However, they also like crops such as peas, beans, lettuce and many garden flowers. In winter they like bark, twigs, and buds of shrubs and young trees. If left unprotected, rabbits will eat bark all around the base of a tree or shrub. This is called "girdling" and will very likely kill the tree or shrub. Cottontails are active all year long, foraging mainly at night. During the day they remain concealed in dense brush, protected from predators and harsh weather. Their home range varies with the quality of habitat, but generally averages about three acres for females and eight acres for males.

They have an active reproductive life which begins in early spring and lasts through early fall. Usually each pair will produce about 18 young during a breeding season. Females do not dig their own nest burrows, but rather scratch out a slight depression in the ground in an area of dense grass for concealment. The nest is lined with fur and dry grass. Gestation period is about 28 days. A females cottontail will usually have two to four litters of young each year. A litter will be as small as three, but can be as large as nine. Most litters average about four. The small rabbits are born blind, grow quickly and begin to leave their nest after two to three weeks. They are on their own at four to five weeks. The mother, who is usually bred a few days after giving birth, is about ready to have another litter of bunnies. The young cottontails become sexually mature after two to three months. At this rate the population of cottontails is able to grow with staggering speed. However, cottontails are at the bottom of the food chain and are the desired meal of many animals and birds of prey. On average, only 15 percent of the young rabbits will survive their first year. Most rabbits will live only about 12 to 15 months, and only one rabbit out 100 will live to see its third fall.

Cottontails have very keen sight and hearing. When danger is sensed, the animal will usually freeze in place until the danger has passed, but they will flush readily if approached too closely. Rabbits normally move slowly in short hops or jumps, but when frightened they can achieve speeds up to 18 miles per hour over a short distance. They often zig-zag to confuse a pursuing predator. Although they do not take to water often, rabbits are good swimmers. They will thump the ground with their hind feet regularly, probably as a means of communication. When playing, breeding or fighting they often make low purring, growling or grunting sounds. If captured by a predator, the animal may produce a loud, shrill scream.

Rabbits can cause problems by browsing flower and vegetable gardens and/or chewing on shrubs and trees. Their browsing is easily identified because they leave a clean, angled cut. Chewing and debarking by rabbits usually does not extend more than 2 1/2 feet above the ground or snow line.

The best way to protect trees and shrubs is an exclusion fence or cylinder. Fences can be placed around groups of plants that need protection. The fence should be made of 1 inch galvanized steel mesh or hardware cloth 18 to 24 inches high. The stakes don't need to be permanently set, but the mesh should reach the ground or be buried a few inches deep to prevent rabbits from digging underneath. A cylinder made from mesh or hardware cloth can be used on individual trees. There should be adequate space on the inside of the cylinder to allow for stakes and to prevent rabbits from reaching through to the tree. If the snow becomes deep, the height of the fence will need to increase, or rabbits will take advantage of the opportunity. There are also pre-made plastic tree cylinders which can be used on seedlings.

There are chemical taste and odor repellents available from many lawn and garden stores. These repellents offer only a limited amount of protection and usually have to be reapplied at regular intervals, especially following a rain storm.

In some cases careful landscaping can reduce the number of rabbits in an area. Removing as much cover as possible, such as trimming shrubs up from the ground and removing woodpiles, reduces hiding spaces. Trapping can temporarily reduce the number of rabbits, until rabbits from surrounding areas move in. In general, most urban and suburban areas are ideal habitat for rabbits: plenty of food, cover and few predators. In the long run, exclusion is the best way to protect gardens, trees and shrubs.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.