Rabbit, Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)


Cotton tail rabbit

2 to 4 pounds. Body is 14–18 inches long.

Signs of their presence:

  1. Visual sighting of animal.
  2. Damaged garden crops: what won’t they eat? Tomatoes—that’s about it. But it’s hard to tell whether a rabbit, woodchuck, or deer is responsible for damage to flowers or vegetables.
  3. Damaged shrubs and trees. Usually you can tell if this damage was caused by a rabbit, vole, or deer. Rabbits attack smooth bark and gnaw in patches. Their toothmarks are a little less than an inch wide—wider, but less distinct, than the voles’. They often clip twigs, branches, and berry canes with a clean 45-degree-angle cut. Deer, on the other hand, lack upper incisors, so they leave ragged edges when they browse on branches.
  4. Tracks: seen in groups of four. The tracks of the back feet actually imprint ahead of the front feet because rabbits leap, pushing off from their front feet. The front track is almost round, about 1″ wide, the hind track is about 3–4″ long and oblong.
  5. Scat: 1/3″ in diameter, round, flying-saucer shaped, looks like compressed sawdust. One rabbit leaves 250 to 500 pellets a day. Like hares, voles, and beavers, they eat their feces to extract more nutrients from grasses and tree bark, which are difficult to digest.
  6. Sounds: Usually quiet, other than a high scream of distress when attacked, the grunt of the mother when her nest is approached, or the high squeal of a female during mating.


Herbivore. In the winter, they often eat the bark, twigs, and buds of ornamental shrubs and fruit trees because everything else is covered by snow. In the spring and summer, they switch to vegetables, field crops, flowers, and other succulent green plants. It’s probably easier to list what rabbits won’t eat than what they will, because they’ll eat many kinds of plants. They don’t dig up carrots or flower bulbs and don’t like tomatoes.

Typical activity patterns:

Social style: Mostly solitary, although they may have an informal social network.

Daily activity: Nocturnal, and crepuscular. May feed during the day in summer, under or near thick cover.

Hibernator? No.

Migrates? No.

Where found:

Distribution in NY and the Northeast: rural and suburban areas; parks.

Habitat: Prefer brushy fence rows, field edges, overgrown pastures, sapling stands, and shrub or perennial borders in landscaped backyards. They don’t need a water source because they can get what they need from snow or dew. Can reach densities of 3–5/acre; more, if the habitat is favorable. They don’t dig holes, but will take refuge in a skunk or woodchuck burrow in bad weather—always staying right near the entry. Normally they rest in small depressions in the grass.

Territory and home range: Not territorial, but they are aggressive and establish a dominance ranking within each gender. Females are generally dominant over males, except during breeding. Rabbits have overlapping home ranges of 1–14 acres (average 5 acres) which may shift as food sources and cover change with the seasons. Males’ home ranges are somewhat larger than females.

Breeding habits:

Pair bonding style: Rabbits are polygamous, with dominant males mating the most. Female raises the young alone.

Breeding dates: Late February through September. Gestation is variable but averages 28 days. Females have up to six litters per year, giving birth to as many as 35 young. Females may breed again as soon as they’ve given birth.

Litter size: 4–5. May see as few as 2 or as many as 8. Mothers only visit their young at night, to nurse them.

Weaning dates: Between 4–5 weeks old.

Amount of time young remain with parents beyond weaning date: Not long.

Common nuisance situations:

Time of year: Any time of year.

What are they doing?

  1. Eat flowers, vegetables, and agricultural crops.
  2. Can girdle young trees and shrubs (ornamental and fruit).
  3. Disease risks: tularemia.

Legal status in New York:

Protected. Game species with set season.

From ECL 11-0523:

“4. Varying hares, cottontail rabbits and European hares which are injuring property on occupied farms or lands may be taken thereon, at any time, in any manner, except by the use of ferrets, fitch-ferrets or fitch, by the owners or occupants of such farms or lands or by a person authorized in writing by them and actually employed by them in cultivating such farm lands.

9. Varying hares, cottontail rabbits, skunks, black, grey and fox squirrels, raccoons, opossums or weasels taken pursuant to this section in the closed season or in a manner not permitted by section 11-0901 shall be immediately buried or cremated. No person shall possess or traffic in such skunks or raccoons or the pelts thereof or in such varying hares or cottontail rabbits or the flesh thereof.”

Best practices

Rabbits are such prolific breeders and there are always so many nearby that are ready to move into a vacant territory that removal won’t be effective for long. The best solution combines exclusion and habitat modification.

Reduce their nesting sites:

  1. Rabbits need dense cover close to their feeding areas to protect them from predators. Remove the cover and you make the area far less attractive to rabbits.
  2. Remove brush piles.
  3. Trim shrubs and fencerows.
  4. Keep paths around gardens and fields closely mowed.
  5. Clean up overgrown ditches or stream banks that are near crops.

Protect vulnerable plants or areas:

  1. For a small area, erect a 2 ft. high chicken wire fence with a 1″ mesh that’s either buried a few inches deep or very tight to the ground. Rabbits won’t dig under the fence, but they will try to squeeze through loose spots. Support the fence every 6–8 feet with a strong post.
  2. Put cylinders of 1/4″ hardware cloth around trees and shrubs until their bark roughens. Keep the mesh an inch or so away from the plant. If you use 1/2″ mesh, be sure it’s far enough away from the plant to prevent the rabbits from nibbling through the mesh.
  3. Commercial tree wrap can protect young trees. Remember, most tree damage happens during the winter. When there’s deep snow, the rabbits can reach much higher.
  4. A dome or cage of chicken wire over small garden beds will discourage rabbits.
  5. A single-strand polytape electric fence will work well. To keep deer from damaging the fence accidentally, hang white cotton flagging on the fence every 6 feet to make it more obvious at night. You can spray the flagging with a deer repellent for extra security (if you have a commercial pesticide applicator license).
  6. If there’s an existing electric fence, add three additional wires at 5, 10, and 15 inches from the ground to keep the rabbits out, too. This also discourages woodchucks.
  7. A 2-ft. high welded wire fence made of 1″ mesh, installed in the rat wall “L” shape with a top wire that’s electric also works well, but is more expensive.

NWCOs with commercial pesticide applicator licenses:

  1. Many repellents registered for deer are also registered for use against rabbits. Egg-based repellents have proved effective; other possibilities include capsaicin (hot pepper), and thiram products.
  2. No poisons are registered for rabbits in New York.

Trapping strategies:

Rabbits are such prolific breeders that trapping—or for that matter, shooting—won’t solve the problem for long. More rabbits will gladly move in from other areas.

Live traps:

  1. Rabbits are easy to capture in a box or cage trap (9 × 9 × 18″). Traps should be set just after sunset or just before sunrise, when the rabbits are most active. Winter is the easiest time to trap rabbits because there’s less food around, so the bait is often more attractive.
  2. Place traps close to the hole, feeding area, or trail. A trail of a few pieces of bait leading to the trap will help guide the rabbit into the trap.
  3. Bait with apples or corn, and add a few rabbit droppings to increase the bait’s appeal.
  4. Don’t clean the trap between uses because the scent of a rabbit will attract other rabbits.
  5. Place traps away from prevailing winds (winter) to keep snow and dry leaves from interfering with the trap door. And cover with dark canvas or other material to make the trap seem like a safe, secure place.
  6. After a week, if the trap’s not working, move to a new site.

Lethal techniques:

  1. Body-gripping traps, #110, or #120, set in the hole. Cover the trap or take other precautions to prevent the capture of non-targets, as described in chapter five.
  2. You can also suggest that customers invite hunters and beagle clubs to hunt on their properties during the legal season. An overall reduction in the local rabbit population may help reduce the chances of conflicts.

Preferred killing methods:

  1. CO2 chamber
  2. Cervical dislocation
  3. Lethal dose of barbiturate, if possible
  4. Stunning and chest compression
  5. Shooting using an air rifle, shotgun, or .22-caliber rifle (target the head if rabies testing isn’t required, or the heart/lungs)

Acceptable killing methods:

  1. Stunning and decapitation
  2. Stunning and cervical dislocation
  3. Stunning and shooting