Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Cottontail Rabbit
Nature Bulletin No. 732   November 16, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

The cottontail rabbit is one of the few native animals that has been benefited by civilization. They are much more numerous today than they were when the early settlers began to cut the forests and plow the land for farming. Woodland edges, thickets, brushy fencerows, and fields are their favorite haunts. Even in cities and towns their tracks in the snow can be seen crisscrossing lawns, gardens and parks, With the possible exception of parts of downtown Chicago, cottontails probably are to be found on every square mile of land in Illinois. They are so successful that five million taken by Illinois hunters in autumn does not reduce next year's crop .

Each cottontail has its own home territory, less than five acres in area, which it seldom leaves. Even when chased outside by a fox or a dog, it circles back to this home base where it is familiar with every brush pile, tangle of briers or weed patch that offers protection.

The rabbit does not dig a burrow although it habitually uses woodchuck dens, hollow logs and tile drains to escape enemies or for shelter during stormy weather. In its daily routine, several hours are spent hunched motionless in one or another of several sitting places, or "forms", partially hidden under tufts of grass.

Cottontails have two regular mealtimes -- just after dawn and again in early evening -- but sometimes they nibble between meals. Their year- round diet is mostly green plants of a wide variety -- leaves, stems, flowerheads and winter rosettes -- both wild and cultivated. Clover and alfalfa are favorites. After nipping off a long stem, a rabbit lifts its head and with its split upper lip slowly feeds it endwise into the grinding molar teeth. When crusted snow covers other food, they chew woody twigs and gnaw the bark from trees and shrubs with their chisel-like incisor teeth.

The tracks of a rabbit are unlike those of any other animal. Their gait is a series of hops or leaps -- up to ten feet or more in length. They never walk or trot. The small front feet hit the ground first, one behind the other. Then the large hind feet land on each side and ahead of those. Their speed is as fast as a dog's or a fox' s for about a fourth of a mile but they usually escape by dodging abruptly to the side and doubling back. The hind feet are thumped on the ground as a warning signal and a mother cottontail uses her feet and toenails to defend her young. In courtship, the buck rabbit cavorts and makes high leaps in the air.

The large eyes, set on the sides of the head, can see in all directions without moving, although the animal often stands upright on its hind feet to get a better view. At rest, the long ears lie flat on the back but they are raised and turned from side to side when any hint of danger threatens. The twitching nose seems constantly on the alert for any strange odor drifting on the breeze.

The female hides her newborn young in a shallow cavity lined with dry grass and her own fur -- usually in an open meadow or lawn. Naked and blind at first, they grow rapidly. When ten days old their eyes open and within another week they are tiny balls of fur nibbling greens and playing tag at dusk. Between early spring and late summer each doe rabbit rears three or four litters with an average of four to six young each.

Cottontails have many enemies -- hawks, owls, snakes, weasels, mink, foxes, dogs and cats. Also automobiles and farm machinery. Also people who pick up baby bunnies and try to care for them. They should be left alone, for the mother is usually nearby and will do a much better job.

See Nature Bulletin No. 473, "Rabbits and Hares", for other information.

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