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Cottontail Rabbit Management

Found throughout the United States, cottontail rabbits are most common in landscapes with abundant edge habitat. An edge is the area where two different habitats meet, such as a field and a forest. Cottontails are edge-dependent, and they require a large mix of habitats including sparsely forested areas, brushy thickets, dry and grassy wetland edges, hayfields, grassy cornfields, brushy fencerows, and to the concern of fruit and vegetable growers, densely planted orchards and gardens.
Rabbits need a good supply of food and cover throughout the year. Without an adequate source of food they will turn to landscape plants, and may cause considerable damage. They also need adequate winter and escape cover. This cover includes protected woodlots, rock or brush piles, hollow logs, shrub thickets, low-growing evergreens, woodchuck holes, and other abandoned dens. Here, they hide from predators and seek shelter from bad weather. Distinct "runways" or "rabbit paths" sometimes lead to and from these hiding places. Corridors of cover, such as brushy fencerows or grassy strips that link larger habitats, will also help to increase cottontail numbers. The corridors need only be five to fifteen yards wide.

Although the cottontail’s home range may vary from one to sixty acres, it is typically small, averaging six to eight acres for males and two to three acres for females. Young rabbits may move two or three miles in an effort to find suitable habitat, and once they find it they lead a fairly solitary life.

Cottontails may begin mating as early as February and continue through September. Courtship is best described as a "frolic" of racing, jumping, fighting, squealing, and kicking animals. Dominant males drive off competing bucks for the right to breed. People often mistake the scattered bits of hide and fur resulting from these battles as predator kills. 
Cottontail rabbits are very prolific. The average production is three or four litters a year, with four or five young per litter. However, many of these do not survive. The number of young that survive is largely a function of habitat quality; especially the availability of food and shelter within this habitat. Females typically mate again soon after their young are born. The number of times she re-nests is dependent upon her health and the weather. 
First litters usually occur in early April in grassland areas. The mother scrapes out a nest that is four to six inches deep and three to five inches wide. She lines this small, shallow depression first with grass and then with fur from her own body. The young, which weigh only about one ounce and measure four inches in length, are born blind, naked and almost totally helpless. The offspring grow rapidly, and in only 10 or 12 days are too large for the nest. Their eyes are then open and they begin to forage for grass, clover, and the buds, sprouts, and shoots of woody plants. Mature at four months old, some young cottontails from early litters may breed in their first year of life. Most, however, do not breed until the following spring.

Maintenance of high, vigorously producing populations of rabbits requires the removal of all animals in excess of the carrying capacity of the land. If these animals aren't removed by hunting, nature itself will bring the population into balance with the environment.
Since the carrying capacity of any rabbit range changes with the seasons, it's not too surprising to find the capacity greatest near the close of the reproductive season, when the population and the cover are both at their highest. As winter weather and crop harvest reduce the habitat, the rabbit population shrinks with the carrying capacity. Any attempt to maintain densities of rabbits above the carrying capacity by stocking is certain to fail. Aside from the justification of hunting rabbits for recreation hunting also serves, at least in part, to bring about the necessary reduction in the population to somewhat parallel the natural loss in carrying capacity. Reduction of the rabbit harvest, through restricted seasons, as a means of bolstering the breeding stock, and hence the following year's supply of rabbits, fails to take into account that (1) Rabbit survival is largely a matter of habitat quality, not hunting pressure, and (2) Rapid population growth can easily reestablish peak numbers in good habitat, and no amount of restrictions can maintain good populations in poor habitat.

There are three basic requirements that must be met to provide favorable rabbit habitat. They are (1) year- around food supply; (2) escape and concealment cover; and (3) nesting sites.
To increase the rabbit carrying capacity of your favorite hunting area you will have to decide which of these factors is in need of help. It's not likely that it will be your favorite spot if these factors are missing in any degree, but it is possible that any or all may be missing from the spot you'd like to make your favorite.
Because rabbits are born, live, and die within a very small area, it is necessary that these habitat requirements be close to one another. When the habitat types arc in small units, well distributed over the area, they are said to be favorably "interspersed." That is to say, rabbits can easily move from one type to another, from a brushpile (escape cover) to a clover patch (food supply) and back to the brushpile, without being excessively exposed. To separate the brushpile from the food supply with plowed ground or a bare pasture is like putting a thirsty cow on a 15-foot tether, 16 feet from water.

Winter is the most critical time period for rabbits. When they have to forage far, they become vulnerable to predation. The rate of exposure increases when snow covers the ground because the cottontail does not turn white in winter, as does its larger cousin the snowshoe hare.
If snowfall is persistent, rabbits must shift from tall grasses and other herbaceous foods to agricultural crops and woody foods such as raspberry twigs, gallberry, stems of wild rose, New Jersey tea, locust, sassafras, and the bark of sumac. Highbush cranberry, silky and gray dogwood, thorneapple, and other planted shrubs will supplement their winter diet. Mixing these shrubs with spruces, junipers, jack pine, Canada yew, balsam fir, black or white spruce, hemlock, or other conifers which retain their lower branches will increase protection. Half-acre food patches of corn or grain sorghum will provide high energy food.
Spring and Summer
Cottontails are animals with constantly growing incisors specially adapted for ripping and gnawing vegetation. Opportunistic vegetarians, cottontails depend on succulent green plants for nutrition and water. However, they will also drink free-standing water when it is available. During spring and summer, their main fare is green plantlife, and they are especially fond of legumes (alfalfa, clover, peas, beans and Korean lespedeza), grasses, dandelions, and domestic garden vegetables. 
A mixture of legumes and grasses (timothy grass and orchardgrass), along with tall native grasses such as switchgrass or cheat provide food and cover throughout the spring and summer. Clovers such as ladino, medium red, alsike, white dutch, and sweet, mixed with Kentucky bluegrass, create optimal forage areas for rabbits as well as deer, and are also used as brood sites for pheasants, quail, turkeys, and songbirds.
Food and cover change dramatically as the growing season wanes. Cultivated grains ripen, trees and bushes lose their leaves, and lush grasses turn brown and become less palatable causing rabbits to turn to cultivated crops of cereal grains, corn, milo, soybeans, apples, and other fruits. Clovers are also a good autumn food source since they stay green late into the fall.

Soil tests taken in areas where food plantings are to be located will show the amounts of fertilizer and lime the soil needs. As a rule, established pastures will be improved by applications of fertilizers. New plantings will benefit also, if fertility requirements are met.
Locating Rabbit Food Plots: Locate new food plots or improved sites adjacent to fenced woodlots, draws, fenced pond areas, or around large brush piles that will allow feeding without exposure to predation. A rabbit will pass up a food patch if exposure to predation is a possibility.
Size of Food Plots: In most cases, one-tenth acre plots are sufficient if they are managed properly and are well distributed. Strip plantings 20 feet wide by 200 feet long are adequate if other needs are met.
Protection: For maximum value to wildlife, plantings must be protected from fire and excessive grazing. Light grazing that would remove about one-half of the growth during the month of June is desirable in lieu of clipping. Do not graze during the fall or winter months.
Plants for Food Plots: Fertile soils encourage succulent new growth that is palatable and nutritious. food plants that are predominately overmature or consist of growth that has stagnated usually produce poor rabbit populations. Thus, plantings made to improve rabbit habitat should contain a variety of seasonally palatable, nutritious foods that are grown near permanent cover. The seedbed for a rabbit green browse plot should be prepared in August or early September, working in the fertilizer at the rate of 1/2 bushel per acre, along with 5 pounds per acre with wheat at the rate of 1/2 bushel per acre, along with 5 pounds per acre of either inoculated alfalfa, ladino clover, red clover, Dutch white clover or hairy vetch, or 2 pounds per acre of birdsfoot trefoil. The wheat will die after the first year, but the legume should persist and furnish succulent browse for three to five years. Clipping twice each year (about June 20 and September 1) and top dressing the plot with 100 pounds of phosphate and 100 pounds of potash every other year should add additional years of life to the planting.
For those who want to go one step further and provide plants with the highest monthly use, the following plant list will be helpful:January: Bluegrass, corn, timothy, cheat, wheat, sumac
February: Bluegrass, sorghum, wheat, poison ivy
March: Bluegrass, cheat, wheat, timothy
April: Bluegrass, cheat, wheat, dandelion
May: bluegrass, white clover, wheat, red clover
June: Korean lespedeza, white clvoer, knotweed, wheat
July: White clover, Korean lespedeza, timothy, crabgrass
August: Crabgrass, white and red clover, Korean lespedeza, wheat
September: Crabgrass, Korean lespedeza, white clover, wheat
October: Crabgrass, wheat, white clover, Korean lespedeza
November: Wheat, white clover, bluegrass, timothy December: Wheat, cheat, bluegrass, meadow fescue

All animals need dense cover throughout the year for various reasons; especially cottontail rabbits: concealment and protection from predators, protection from severe weather, and for resting or loafing cover. In areas where dense tangles of brush and vines are absent or limited, artificial brush piles can be constructed to provide much needed cover for ground nesting birds, rabbits, songbirds, and other small animals.Brush piles should be constructed along forest edges and in openings, field corners, or along the margins of streams and marshes. Brush piles should be situated near grassy areas or cultivated lands so that food and nesting habitat can easily be found near the protective cover of the brush piles. In open areas where cover is lacking, three to four brush piles per acre should be constructed. Along woodland borders, one brush pile every 200 to 300 feet will provide adequate cover as well as travel lanes to other areas. Brush piles should be built in conjunction with land clearing or forest thinning operations. The materials used for the brush pile will depend upon what is locally available. Rot resistant trees, such as oaks and locust, make durable bases for the brush piles as do old lumber or timbers you might have laying around. The base of the brush pile should be formed by placing alternate layers of logs at right angles to one another. The logs used should be at least six inches in diameter and spaced six to ten inches apart in each layer. To increase the durability of the brush pile, the base layers may be stacked on top of stones, tires, cinder blocks, or around large stumps. It is important to remember that the base will act to keep pathways open under the pile once the brush is placed on top. To enhance these pathways, you might want to place old sections of drainage tile in the base or cut holes in old tires to create dens for small mammals. Smaller trees and brush should be piled on top of the base until a mound or tepee-shaped brush pile is created. Any brush may be used as filling on the piles; hardwood tree tops will last longer, but evergreens (such as discarded Christmas trees) can provide excellent, short term cover. Finished piles should be four to eight feet tall and 10 to 20 feet in diameter. If you choose to build a rectangular shaped brush pile, it should be a least 10 to 15 feet wide and at least 25+ feet long.
Remember, build the brush piles dense enough in the center to provide adequate shelter from adverse weather and predators but loose enough around the edges to allow for easy access. Strict attention should be given to the size of the brush piles built. The tendency is to make brush piles too small. If a person can kick a brush pile over, or a dog can burrow through them, they are too small.

Choose wide-crowned trees that are 6 to 8 feet tall; red cedar and holly provide excellent cover. In the spring of the year, make a cut in the tree with a hand or chainsaw 3-4 feet above the ground opposite the intended location of the pile.
Cut deep enough so that you can push the top over, leaving a connecting strip of bark and wood (hinge) to nourish the tree. Use a stake or stone to tie the top of the tree to the ground.
Rework old piles every 5 or 6 years.
Select trees with grape or honeysuckle vines nearby that will grow and cover the pile.

Artificial Dens: Old culverts, soil pipes and discarded farm equipment, placed in tall grass or weeds close to permanent cover, make attractive sites for rabbits. Brush placed over the top will improve their usefulness.
Nesting Cover: Rabbits nest in grassy locations such as pastures, ditch banks, pond dams, orchards and even lawns. The importance of well-drained sites to protect the nest lining materials from becoming dampened cannot be overlooked. On flat land, heavy rains during the breeding season fill the nest depression and either drown the young or force them from the nest. Terraces, when well grassed, make good nesting sites.
In flat areas, well-drained nest sites can be made by plowing two back furrows against each other and seeding them to a grass-legume mixture. The chance for survival of the young will be increased by placing these nesting areas near permanent cover and some bare ground. This allows the young rabbits to escape dense, dew-covered vegetation, which tends to be a deadly combination during the early period of growth.
Seeding banks of gullies, pond dams, and bare road cuts will provide ideal nesting cover. A mulch of stray, sawdust or discarded vegetation will also improve these localities from nesting. All nesting sites should be protected from grazing, mowing, and burning. Nesting habitat is especially important for the first litter, which is usually produced before most vegetation starts growing in early spring.
Native Warm Season Grasses: The value of native warm season grasses (e.g. big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass) for wildlife lies with its structure and the time of the year when new growth occurs. The tall, stiff, upright stems and elevated leaves effectively reduce wind speed, modify humidity and transpiration extremes, as well as soften raindrop impact. To ground nesting species, these traits provide a more favorable reproduction condition than do most cool season grasses (bluegrass, fescue). The upright stems of native grasses persist throughout the winter months and are able to hold up even under heavy snow and ice.
The "clumpiness" of natives allow free movement along travel lanes beneath the protective cover. Young rabbits are able to climb into the clump to escape drowning or chilling rains. This characteristic also allows the germination of other broad-leaved plants, which may be valueable browse for rabbits and other wildlife.

The following are options to consider when managing for cottontail rabbits:

  • Maintain a large amount of edge (a mix of woodlots, brushlands, and grasslands) as rabbits are edge-loving species.
  • Provide an adequate source of year-round food (shrubs, grasses, legumes, and grain plots) next to cover(woodlots, rock or brush piles, hollow logs, shrub thickets, and low-growing evergreens).
  • Do not plant food patches directly next to woodlots. Instead, provide a buffer strip of shrubs between the food source and woods. Make this buffer strip at least fifty yards wide, and be sure to include some brushpiles.
  • Plant grasses at least 50 yards wide next to escape cover that contains denning sites, brushpiles, and hedgerows at least 60 feet wide. Grasses will provide food throughout the spring and summer, and if tall grass cover is available in autumn, along with a good food supply, rabbits will go into winter in healthy condition.
  • Allow fallow croplands to develop brush. Croplands are not essential to rabbits; however, the habitat created by fallowed or abandoned croplands, with its briers and brambles, provide excellent habitat and nesting sites.

No matter how we manage our property for wildlife, our decisions will always have impacts. For example, if you plant grasses and clovers to encourage rabbits and deer to use the habitat, you will discourage forest-loving wildlife such as thrushes, woodpeckers and squirrels. Cutting trees for brushpiles will eliminate former habitat where turkeys, squirrels, and wood thrushes once lived.You should be aware that creating or enhancing habitats may invite unwanted guests. For example, if you plant trees and shrubs you will most likely lure deer, rabbits and mice that can become a nuisance by eating the new plantings and even killing them. Rabbits can have a tremendous detrimental impact on woody plant regeneration and establishment. Free-roaming dogs and cats may also be attracted to any habitat that suddenly has an abundance of wildlife. Rabbits are a key prey species for many predators, including domestic and feral house cats.

SUMMARY--Important Management Practices:
If rabbit numbers are to be maintained or increased, high plant diversity must be encouraged along with heavy cover. A rabbit management plan should include as many of the following "tools" as is practical:1) Dense brush piles -- cattle-proof cover2) Small grains -- oats, wheat, rye, barley3) Row crops -- corn, milo, soybeans4) Green browse -- clovers, bluegrass5) Native warm-season grasses6) Some bare ground for "sunning"7) Weeds -- crabgrass, foxtail, ragweed, etc.8) Fenced woodlots -- ungrazed areas

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).