A tale of two cottontail rabbits

A tale of two cottontail rabbits

“You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden. Your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” From “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” by Beatrix Potter

These past two summers I have seen more and more cottontail rabbits in our yard and fields. Most summer evenings, around sunset and into twilight I’ll see three or four enjoying the grass, clover and wildflowers throughout our property. They are also out and about at first light, but as soon as the sun is at full strength they retreat to the edges of our fields and bushes, which provide excellent cover for them to hide and nest. On more than one occasion I have accidentally flushed a bunny from its hiding place among the heavy grass. Sometimes I’ll push back the grass to discover a small depression where 4 or 5 soft cottontail “kits” are sleeping.

Did you know that there are two species of cottontail rabbits in our region? We have our native rabbit, the New England Cottontail, and their cousin, the Eastern Cottontail, introduced to the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They look so much alike that the most effective way to tell them apart is through DNA analysis. Unfortunately, the numbers of New England Cottontails have dramatically been reduced because of loss of their preferred home range habitat. What we are seeing visiting our yards and grass areas is most likely the Eastern Cottontail.

The following information on these two rabbits is provided by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) wildlife division.

The New England cottontail occurs in New York east of the Hudson River and across New England in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and into southern portions of New Hampshire and Maine. The Eastern cottontail occurs in the eastern United States and southern Canada south to eastern Mexico and into Central America. Its range is expanding, while the New England cottontail’s range is diminishing.

Eastern cottontails tend to use open fields, meadows, yards and other grassy areas. New England cottontails require large patches of shrubland or young forest, often called thickets, with dense, tangled vegetation. These young forests are generally less than 25 years old. Once large trees grow in a stand, the shrub layer tends to become thin, creating habitat that the New England cottontail no longer finds suitable.

New England and Eastern cottontails are almost identical in appearance, except for a slight variation in color. About half of the eastern cottontail population shows a white, star-like shape on the forehead, while New England cottontails do not exhibit this trait. A comparison of skull characteristics or DNA analysis is the most reliable ways to distinguish between the two species.

In 2006 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated the New England cottontail as a candidate for threatened or endangered status as a result of population decline and widespread habitat loss experienced since the 1960s. Their preferred young forest and shrubland habitat had been reduced by about 86%, with only five smaller populations remaining across New England and eastern New York. The simple fact is our forests are older now with large swaths of mature trees well over 50 to 100 years old.

Breeding and habitat restoration efforts to support the New England Cottontails have been underway in southern New England for more than a decade. CT DEEP conducted statewide research on both species to determine the distribution, population, estimate the size of their home range and assess possible competition between the two species.

They also helped in the development of a captive breeding program intended to propagate and release New England cottontails throughout their home range as well as to enhance existing populations. Habitat augmentations to create young forests have been implemented on Connecticut state forest lands, wildlife management areas and private lands, resulting in increases of populations of our native cottontail.

The efforts by CT DEEP, and other efforts throughout southern New England have brought promising results. In 2015, CT DEEP estimated New England cottontails in priority focus areas numbered more than 10,000, bringing the recovery effort three-quarters of the way toward its 2030 goal of 13,500 cottontails in healthy, young forest landscapes.

CT DEEP has also reported:

“This high-level collaboration between state and federal natural resource agencies, non-governmental organizations, land trusts and private landowners has set a new standard for wildlife conservation. In September 2015, the USFWS announced that, due to this unprecedented cooperative effort uniting foresters, farmers, birdwatchers, biologists, hunters, and other conservationists, protection under the federal Endangered Species Act was no longer warranted and the New England cottontail would not be listed.”

“In Connecticut so far, habitat on approximately 700 acres of public land and 600 acres of private land have been enhanced to create young forest habitat in patches ranging from six to 100 acres in size. These projects benefit not only the New England cottontail, but also 47 other high priority species that are dependent upon young forest habitat identified in Connecticut’s Wildlife Action Plan. Although we are celebrating the success of our efforts to date, work will continue for many years to ensure the long-term stability of the New England cottontail.”

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on. That little bunny outside your window this morning is probably an Eastern cottontail, but maybe, thanks to the efforts of conservationists, it’s a native New England cottontail rabbit.

“At last, Peter Rabbit made his way back to the cozy burrow where he lived with his family. He was a very tired rabbit indeed!”

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 by email at bill@tlgv.org.

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, August 7th, 2022

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.

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