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We’re about to go back into lockdown over the weekend, so there isn’t a whole lot to celebrate for the Easter long weekend. But I thought I’d get a little bit into the spirit by writing about an animal I’m shocked I haven’t made a post about yet. Is there any animal more associated with Easter than the adorable rabbit? Perhaps, but I can’t think of one, so rabbit it is!
There are many different species of rabbit, but I’m going to focus on the one that is most relevant to me, because I’m selfish like that. The Eastern cottontail rabbit is found across the eastern and central parts of the United States, in southern Canada, and in parts of Mexico, Central America and northern South America. Cottontails haven’t just stuck to their original range; deforestation has allowed them to journey beyond their historical limits, and they have been introduced to British Colombia, Oregon, Washington, and Italy, of all places.
One of the reasons eastern cottontails benefitted so much from deforestation and human activity is that they prefer open, grassy areas with nearby shrubs for cover. In other words, farms broken up by groups or trees or shrubs are perfect habitats for eastern cottontails.
Cottontails look exactly how you’d expect a rabbit to look: brown, big back feet, giant ears. Their undersides and tails are white, which is presumably how the name cottontail came to be. Cottontails reach sizes of 14-19 inches, weighing between 1.8 to 4.4 pounds. In other words, there’s nothing particularly special about the cottontail’s appearance or size — they’re pretty standard rabbits.
A burning question probably going through your mind right now is: what do rabbits eat? Likely you probably know that cottontails are herbivorous, but exactly what plants do they enjoy snacking on? The answer is pretty much everything. They prefer grasses, clovers, and garden vegetables during the summer months, but must subsist on more woody plants in the winter, eating twigs, barks and buds of trees.
This may sound like a diet that isn’t particularly digestible, and you’d be right. Plants are hard to break down, so rabbits enlist the help of bacteria in their cecum to ferment and break down ingested plant tissues. The cecum is the beginning of the large intestine, which poses a problem for rabbits. You see, most absorption of nutrients occurs in the small intestine, so even though the plant matter is broken down, not much is gained before the rabbit excretes it.
Don’t worry though: rabbits have a solution for this problem. They produce two different types of faeces – regular fecal pellets and cecotropes, the latter of which contain all those ready-to-absorb nutrients produced by the bacteria in the rabbit’s hindgut. To digest these nutrients, all rabbits have to do is eat those cecotropes and let their digestive system do its thing. So if you have a rabbit and you see it eating its poop, don’t panic! It’s a completely normal and necessary behaviour for your rabbit to stay healthy.
If you’re like me and walk your dog at weird hours to avoid foot traffic, you probably know a little bit about the cottontail’s habits. They are crepuscular and nocturnal, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, during twilight hours. This of course gives many dog owners lots of grief, as there’s nothing more exciting than chasing rabbits in the near-dark. Thankfully rabbits rarely stray far from cover, and can run up to 18 mph when chased, so most of the time they don’t have a problem getting away from our lovely canine companions.
Eastern cottontail rabbits are not particularly friendly; they do not tolerate other rabbits in their territories and are solitary outside of breeding. During the day cottontails hide in little hollows under bushes or logs, sometimes using burrows made by other animals to conceal themselves. Unfortunately for these rabbits, their methods of hiding are not always successful: most cottontails do not live past three years old, with the majority of deaths due to predation.
To make up for this, rabbits breed like —well, rabbits. The breeding season is not distinctly defined and varies depending on location, but is generally from February to September. Does can produce up to seven litters in one year, and average around three to four. They can have as many as twelve young per litter, with an average of five rabbits in each litter.
Rabbits are not particularly devoted parents; they prepare a fur and grass-lined nest in a hollow under a log or bush and then nurse their young once or twice a day. Beyond that cottontail moms don’t do much. The mother typically mates again soon after having her litter, and is near giving birth when the current litter is ready to leave the nest. Young rabbits become sexually mature at two to three months of age, and some juveniles breed the same year they were born. Breed fast, die young, that’s the rabbit motto.
Hopefully the next time you’re walking your dog and they go crazy because they see a rabbit in someone’s yard, you have a little more appreciation for these guys. I certainly do! Have a wonderful Easter everyone!
Cover image by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Southwest Region, Public Domain via Flickr