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New England Cottontail

Scientific name: Sylvilagus transitionalis

new england cottontail in thick cover
Photo of New England cottontail in
thick cover by Amanda Cheeseman.

New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed

Description

The New England cottontail (NEC) is a small mammal in the Leporidae family. Adults are 15-17 inches long and weigh about 2 pounds. NEC are very similar in appearance to the Eastern cottontail. However, NEC have shorter ears, a black spot between the ears, and a black line on the front edge of the ears, while Eastern cottontails have a white spot on the forehead. It can be very difficult to identify the two species just by their physical appearance alone, and researchers often analyze the DNA of fecal pellets for live rabbits or look at the skulls of museum specimens.

Life History

New England cottontails hide in dense cover during the day. They can be active at night, but are most active at dawn and dusk when they feed. Home ranges can be from half an acre to as many as eight acres. Males tend to have larger home ranges than females.

Mating begins in the spring and can run through September, so a female can produce several litters in a season. Gestation (pregnancy) is about four weeks and they tend to have four or five young (kits). The average lifespan of a NEC is about 15 months.

In summer, cottontails eat grasses and the shoots, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds of many herbaceous plants. In autumn, rabbits switch to eating bark, twigs, and buds of woody plants, such as blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and willow.

Distribution and Habitat

map showing locations of new england cottontail locations
Distribution of current NEC populations (solid red line)
within the species' historical range (dashed black line)
by Fuller and Tur, 2012.

The New England cottontail is native to New England and eastern New York, whereas the well-known Eastern cottontail was introduced to the area in the early twentieth century to increase hunting opportunities. The state's New England cottontail populations are only found east of the Hudson River in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties.

The NEC, which used to be known as the brush rabbit or woods rabbit, is a mid- to late-successional species, preferring shrubby areas, thickets, and wetlands with some canopy cover (tree cover). Areas with older shrubland with good understory are often favorable. However, ideal habitat should contain native shrubs as too many invasive shrubs, such as Japanese barberry, can have a negative impact. Areas with lots of barberry often contain a higher number of ticks, which can cause health problems due to excessive blood loss.

Status

Habitat loss and competition with Eastern cottontails have caused dramatic declines in populations across NEC's range. The New England cottontail is listed as a species of greatest conservation need, threatened, or endangered within every state in its current range.

New England cottontails were once common throughout New England and eastern New York, but due to natural forest succession (a change from fields/shrubs to forests over time) and loss of habitat to development, they now occupy less than 15% of their historic range.

Challenges to New England cottontails include:

  • fragmented habitat-they need connected habitat patches, and roads can be significant barriers
  • competition with non-native Eastern cottontails
  • predation
  • high tick load
  • low genetic diversity due to population fragmentation and isolation

Management and Research Needs

Along with five other northeastern states, New York is part of an initiative to help the New England cottontail (leaves DEC website) through research and habitat management. Researchers are attempting to create their preferred habitat in geographic focus areas where populations have been reduced, but are not yet eliminated. To conserve NEC effectively, we need more information on their population sizes and the distribution of suitable habitat in New York. We also need to combat the loss of genetic diversity, evaluate the impacts of hunting on NEC populations, and try to keep Rabbit Hemorraghic Disease (PDF) out of the state.

Monitoring Populations and Captive Breeding Efforts

DEC staff have monitored NEC since 2005 by analyzing the DNA of rabbit fecal pellets. Staff analyzed hundreds of samples from about 50 sites, which provided accurate information on the distribution of NEC in New York. Population density and number of rabbits are estimated from this data, but are not measured directly at most locations. The collection of fecal pellets is difficult fieldwork, often involving staff crawling on grid transects through the dense thickets that are the preferred habitat of the species.

DEC staff have captured a few NEC and provided these to the region-wide captive breeding effort, with their offspring being released at suitable locations in New England, but captive bred rabbits have not been released in New York.

How You Can Help

If you own land in NEC's range (see map above) please consider these best management practices for NEC habitat management:

  • If you have anything you consider a thicket, bramble or briar patch, consider leaving it for wildlife. If you can't walk through it, it's probably good for NEC!
  • If you own forest land and you are removing trees, try to avoid clear-cutting. Leaving some larger trees as canopy closure may give NEC an advantage over Eastern cottontails.
  • Minimize disturbance if possible by hand-cutting trees instead of using heavy machinery; protect seedlings and native shrubs during cutting.
  • Provide additional cover such as brush piles or leaving cut trees on the ground.
  • See Best Management Practices for the New England Cottontail in New York (leaves DEC website) for more detailed information.
  • Contact your regional DEC Bureau of Wildlife office for information specific to your location. DEC staff can also give you the latest information on federal programs from the USDA or USFWS.