By Miriam Turnbull
Rabbits are often associated with spring, but winter is my favorite time to look for them. By tracking their footprints in the snow, noticing their scattered scat pellets, or finding low twigs bitten off by sharp teeth at a 45 degree angle, it’s easy to follow the nocturnal wanderings of one of our most common neighborhood mammals – the Eastern cottontail rabbit.
Cottontails seek out edge habitats with cover along the side of an open space, such as meadows, farms, fields, or yards. The home range of a cottontail rabbit is usually less than 5 acres (or 5 football fields).
They spend most of their time during the day hiding in vegetation, then emerge at night to feed on green plants. During the winter, they eat bark, twigs and buds from saplings and other woody plants.
Like other kinds of rabbits, eastern cottontails practice coprophagy, which means that they re-ingest some of their scat. Soft green scat pellets consisting of partially digested plant material are produced during the day while the cottontail is resting, are quickly consumed, and pass through the digestive system again, allowing more nutrients to be absorbed. It sounds kind of gross, but it’s not really that different from cows chewing their cud.
Many predators hunt and eat cottontails, including foxes, coyotes, hawks, raccoons and skunks. Although cottontails can move quickly for short distances, they use zigzags, darts, and dodges more than speed in avoiding capture.
The Minnesota DNR estimates that about 80 percent of the cottontail population in our state dies from weather, disease or predators. However, many litters of young rabbits are born each year, and the remaining 20 percent have no trouble sustaining the population.
Cottontail rabbits have litters of 4-6 young, born without fur or eyesight. Within three or four weeks, these young are able to fend for themselves, and the mother may be ready to deliver another litter. Most young are born between April and August.
While baby rabbits are in a nest, the mother stays nearby in an above-ground structure called a “form,” which she makes by tramping a small area of grass or shrubs. She only comes into the nest to feed them once or twice a day–she doesn’t want to lead predators to the nest.
This winter, try your hand at tracking the eastern cottontail rabbit near your home or here at Springbrook Nature Center. Look for footprints in sets of four, making a triangle shape (front feet do not land side by side as with squirrel tracks). Search for round scat pellet roughly the size of Cocoa Puffs, sprinkled around a small area. Look for small twigs with chew marks, particularly with sharp, cleanly cut pointed ends. Or, just look outside around dusk and you may catch a glimpse of an Eastern Cottontail on the move.
Miriam Turnbull is an interpretive naturalist at Springbrook Nature Center, 100 85th Ave. N.W. in Fridley. Director Mike Maher welcomes comments at [email protected] or 763-572-3589. Go to springbrooknaturecenter.org for more information.