It was a tradition in my family for the men to go rabbit hunting on Thanksgiving morning. Our native cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) can be found all over North America and is the most popular small game animal in the United States. They provide food and sport for humans and are an important food source for other animals higher on the food chain.
A healthy rabbit population requires adequate food and cover. The annual range of cottontails seldom exceeding 20 acres, and their daily range is only around three acres, so food and cover must be available in small areas. A farm with a good mixture of grassland, cropland, woodland and brushy areas along wooded edges and fencerows should provide a good rabbit population for hunting. Here are some general guidelines for rabbit habitat:
In most areas food is not a problem. It’s easier to list what rabbits won’t eat rather than what they will. Grass, berries, seeds of all kind, bark, buds, twigs of trees and shrubs, weeds, farm grains and vegetables are all rabbit food. Cottontails get most of their water from lapping dew off of vegetation.
Protected nesting and winter cover can be the limiting factors in a healthy rabbit population. In our area the mixture of open land, woodland, and brushy area is probably adequate for providing cover. Brush piles, rock piles, small clumps of pine or cedar trees, and shrub thickets provide good winter and escape cover.
The nest of a cottontail female is a cup-shaped cavity on top of the ground, lined with grass and fur she pulls from her coat. Some of the preferred cover types for nesting are broom-sedge, orchard grass, fescue, lespedeza and clover. Most nests are found within 150 feet of the edge of a field.
The gestation period of the cottontail is about one month, and a female may have as many as three to five litters per season. They average four to five young (called kittens or kits) per litter, and may be born anytime of the year between February and September. The young are blind at birth, opening their eyes about the ninth day. They remain in the nest for about two weeks.
Less than 15-25 percent of rabbits live longer than one year. Rabbit populations reach their peak in mid-summer, and areas with high populations can suffer damage to apple orchards and pine plantations. This is more likely in winter, when the bark and twigs are more needed for food.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.