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Cottontails: appealing and plentiful

In winter, cottontail rabbits survive by eating twigs, buds, bark and some vines. Summer diets expand to include clover, grass, leaves, weeds and the occasional garden vegetable.
TRR photos by Sandy Long

January 2, 2013

Many species of mammals abound throughout the Upper Delaware River region. One of the most abundant, and likely the most popular in terms of game animals, is the Eastern cottontail rabbit.

Ranging between 15 to 19 inches in length and weighing between two to four pounds, cottontails are so named for the white puffy tail that characterizes this appealing animal. Brown or grayish soft fur tapers to a lighter tan on top, with a white underbelly below.

Females bear an average of four litters per year, ranging from two to nine young in each. Nests are constructed in cups approximately six inches deep and lined with grasses and fur, which the female harvests from her own belly. In 16 days, young are weaned, furred and able to exist independently.

Cottontail rabbits can be encountered in habitats featuring brushy areas such as thickets and briar patches, stubbly fields and brush piles and even farms and some residential areas. They typically range in limited areas defined by the availability of food and cover. Survival depends upon knowing this territory well, including escape routes.

Even so, rabbits rarely live more than a year in the wild, although their life span can reach up to four years. In addition to harvest by hunters, many predators sustain themselves by consuming cottontails, while flooding and farming operations are major causes of nest mortality, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC).

Snowshoe hares, which turn from brown to white in winter, may still be encountered in areas of high elevation, such as the Pocono Plateau.