Arguably the cutest animal featured in RTPI’s Meet Your Neighbor project is the Eastern Cottontail. Although very common in our area, it’s always great to see these little guys standing watchfully on the edge of fields. Despite their cute appearance, they actually fill an important role in the ecosystem as a food source for our larger predators. Combine this with a life span that is usually less than three years, and one can realize that these mammals have to struggle to survive and maintain their large population.
As the name suggests, the Eastern Cottontail is present across the Eastern United States. The fur is mostly brown and grey, with a reddish patch around the shoulders. Both the fur around the nose and on the underside of the body is a lighter color. Of course, the underside of the tail is distinctly puffy and white. During the winter, the fur becomes more gray than brown, but otherwise remains similar to the summer coat.
The preferred habitat of the Eastern Cottontail are the borders between fields and woodlands. Here, they have access to a good food source, as well as cover from potential predation. Besides fields and woodlands, these rabbits also can make their homes in wetlands, thickets, and meadows. Eastern Cottontails eat a variety of plants, including grasses, clovers, fruits, vegetables, bark, and twigs.
The way that Eastern Cottontail populations are able to survive despite their high mortality rate is by having a high reproductive rate. Female Cottontails can have up to four litters of young each year, and each litter may have as many as nine babies! The babies leave the nest within seven weeks, and are able to mate within three months. This extremely high reproductive rate makes up for the fact that only about 15% of the young actually survive their first year.