Species-Specific Management (SSM)

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Cottontail Rabbit

The cottontail rabbit, Silvilagus floridanus, is an animal of fields and fallow lands. Managing cottontail rabbits involves manipulating or controlling factors that limit their abundance or increasing the human benefits derived from a population. Food, cover, and den sites can be increased. Especially important is increasing human appreciation for and use of the rabbit and reducing whatever damage it causes. Although it may someday be possible to control disease in wildlife populations, we do not, at present, have the knowledge to do so. Consequently, management efforts focus on other factors.

Note: Many of these recommendations have been adapted from WRAP, the Woodland Resources Allocation Program of the Division of Forestry, Fisheries, and Wildlife Development, TVA, Norris, Tenn. 37828 now discontinued.
Food is rarely an important limiting factor in cottontail populations, but abundance and variety are needed throughout the year. The cottontail eats a wide range of foods, including grasses, clover, alfalfa, corn, wheat, barley, soybeans, oats, sorrel, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and goldenrod. High Digestibility and palatability of the forbs and grasses included in the diet may be maintained by mowing and grazing.

Rabbits also feed on garden crops and on the seed of birch, maple, cherry, dogwood, and other trees. In the more northern and mountainous areas, rabbits switch to a diet of bark and buds with the approach of winter and these items remain important in their diet throughout the winter. This habit may be an important factor that should discourage anyone from developing rabbit habitat near commercial orchards or nurseries.

Cover is very important to rabbits, and it is here that the greatest return can be realized from management efforts. Cover is needed for nest sites, travel lanes, resting, loafing, and for protection from weather and predators. A rabbit seldom ventures more than 100 meters (300 feet) from cover during normal activities. Therefore, it is preferable that a variety of suitable cover be made available within this distance.

Rabbits prefer low grass or herbaceous cover (as opposed to thick or heavy cover) for nesting. The best nest sites, however, should not include those low-lying areas which tend to flood easily because the young will drown.

An excellent method of providing protective cover is by constructing brush piles. These, placed in low, sheltered areas, serve as excellent winter cover and are beneficial in a number of ways. First, the structures themselves offer protection from weather and predators. In addition, they attract woodchucks whose dens provide the rabbits with a sanctuary during periods of extremely cold weather. A rabbit above ground during periods of bitter cold is hard-pressed to survive. Its chances for survival are much better if it is able to waitout the cold in a woodchuck hole, where the temperature is often 11 to 17 degrees (C) (20 to 30 degrees (F)) warmer than surface temperatures.

Brush piles should be approximately 2 meters (5 feet) high and 2.5 to 3 meters (8 to 10 feet) wide at the base. Rabbits prefer natural cover. A large downed tree provides a solid base and, when covered with brush and limbs, creates a long-lived brush pile. Logs, rocks, tiles, or similar objects could be substituted for the downed tree and, by placing them at the bases of the piles, will provide the needed 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) of clearance. This clearance will greatly increase the usefulness of a pile by supplying resting places with 2 or more entrances.

These brush piles should be placed within 30 meters (100 feet) of other suitable cover and travel lanes, and there should be 2.5 piles per hectare (one pile per acre). If constructed and placed in this manner, and if other factors are not limiting, brush piles can increase rabbit utilization by 15 percent or more per year.

Another method of increasing cover is to increase edge. Edge is the border between 2 different types of plant communities. An example of this would be a field bordered by a hedgerow or woodland. This area is important to wildlife since it results in diversity of plant and animal communities that provide year-round food and cover and other life needs. Increasing edge will usually result in increases in rabbit and other small animal species populations, up to a point. The goal is to obtain the greatest amount of edge and the greatest number of coverts (points at which more than 2 vegetative types come together) per unit of area and still be practical about land cultivation and about observing and harvesting wildlife.

Most rabbits spend a lifetime in an area of 4 hectares (10 acres) or less. It is therefore important that their year-round requirements for food and cover be met within an area of this size to maximize rabbit populations

The cottontail is not well known in the forests, but it is surprisingly abundant there. It is common, however, in the recently-cut or new forest. They are rarely hunted within forests. Forest edges and open fields are their preferred habitat. In the forests the rabbit need to be considered for:

  1. Spreading spores useful to tree roots.
  2. Adding an extra mammal to species numbers or "biodiversity" (sometimes called species richness).
  3. Providing prey for other desired wildlife (as forage animals for snakes (when young), foxes, bobcats, weasels, hawks and owls).
  4. Being a game animal.
  5. Providing esthetics, natural character of the forest, and historic value.
  6. Providing yet unrecognized ecological functions (e.g., amassing nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus; being a host of several parasites.
  7. Potentially damaging tree and understory seedlings and saplings.

With rabbits' ability to produce 3-8 rabbits per litter and 3-4 litters per year, the numbers can be very large. Mortality is high for many causes.

The way to more rabbits is to combine field and forest practices such as:

  1. Reduce feral or free-ranging cats.
  2. Eliminate grazing in the forest. Provide cover or hiding places such as brush piles and loose rock piles, culverts (road drain pipe), vines, scrap lumber laid out to make "tunnels", and conifer clumps (low-growing juniper shrubs or 6-foot conifers with the tops cut out). Use old fence wire to create clumps. Encourage woodchucks (for the winter homes that they dig).
  3. Make large (20-30 feet in diameter) tepee-shaped brush piles.
  4. Place brush piles (coverts, etc.) as near as possible to water or lowlands.
  5. Partially lop-off a tree, allowing it to continue to grow. Pile brush on it and encourage vines.
  6. Distribute at least one good brush pile or tangle or corner every 2-5 acres, distributed at the center of a beehive-like pattern or about 284 feet apart.
  7. Get several (3-4) types of cover (e.g., pines, grain, fallow field, peas or soybeans) to touch at their corners. These diverse corners (coverts) are invaluable.
  8. Provide nesting areas in grass and low vegetation. Set the mowing machine high off the groung for working over forest wildlife clearings in early spring. This cut can produce good nesting sites. Best nesting: warm season grasses such as switch grass and big bluestem.
  9. Encourage thick tangles and a diagonally-closed canopy on the sun-exposed sides of forest openings.
  10. Maintain wide brushy fence rows across forest openings.
  11. Reduce general insecticide applications.
  12. Provide food year around. (The last 2 words are key.) The best foods include:
    fruits (all kinds), grapes, alfalfa, clover, grasses, grain, sedges, waste corn, winter wheat, vegetables (rape, beets, turnips), orchard grass, crabapples, dogwood, serviceberry, persimmon, blackberry, raspberry, plum, viburnums, corn
    and commercial rabbit feed in feeders in areas where you have not yet gotten plants to grow food

  13. Provide low-growing buds and twigs in winter. Keep food abundant, but also well fertilized, especially with calcium and phosphorus.
  14. Do not plow forest clearings in the fall.
  15. Reduce habitat beside roads to reduce highway losses.
  16. Limit hunting until populations reach acceptable levels. Use dogs to increase hunting harvests and recoveries (up to 70%). Reduce disturbance in fields during spring nesting season.
  17. Impose a daily bag limit of 4 to disperse the harvest among people, over time, and over different habitats. (Average reported hunter takes can be expected to be about 7 rabbits for 10 days of hunting).
  18. Monitor rabbit use of groundhog holes using female ferrets.

Be careful about handling rabbits (the danger of tularemia); cook them well. If insect larvae are found under the skin, cut away the area. The presence of these ugly worms does not harm the remainder of the carcass.

If rabbits are injuring trees:

  1. Be sure to evaluate the likely end result. Are they leaving enough trees to result in the desired stand density or stems per acre? (Usually they are.)
  2. Use repellents if you can afford them. Usually the losses occur during the late fall and winter. New repellents are being developed. Check the Internet for the latest substances.
  3. Use a tree protector or plastic net tube to encircle the seedling.

To enjoy seeing them, go early or late in the day when they usually feed. Use a spotlight from a truck bed to see them in the fields at night. Mow hiking or walking lanes in fallow fields.

Extensive Internet resources on managing the cottontail are available.

Submitted by Robert H. Giles, Jr.

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This Web site is maintained by R. H. Giles, Jr.
Last revision March 6, 2003.