Eastern cottontails favor farmlands, pastures, old fields, open woodlands, shrubby areas or brush piles along fence rows and stone walls, swamps and marshes, and suburban backyards with a mixture of grassland and shrubby cover. These cottontails avoid dense forests. New England cottontails appear to prefer brushy areas, woodlands with an open understory, shrub-dominated wetlands, and mountainous areas. They may also be found in regenerating clearcuts, shrublands, dense coniferous areas, or powerline corridors andhighway medians with dense coniferous habitat. Closely spaced patches of dense vegetation, 25 acres or larger, with stem sizes at least 20 inches tall and less than 3 inches in diameter, are favored.

Habitat Management

Biologists believe that the New England cottontail historically occupied dense understory vegetation associated with gaps in the forest, regenerating forest stands in disturbed areas, stream corridors, and shrubby woodlands. The fragmentation of these habitats may increase the vulnerability of New England cottontails to predation and may also increase competition for disturbed or early successional patches of land. These patches of thickets are highly threatened key components of the New England landscape and management of early successional and thicket habitats is essential to perpetuating a variety of thicket-dependent species. Conventional rabbit management techniques which focused on fields and pasture-lands have not been successful in either creating or maintaining habitats favorable to the New England cottontail and unfavorable to the Eastern cottontail. However, some biologists suggest that a habitat management regime which maintains patches of early successional habitats may be sufficient to maintain local populations of New England cottontails.

Perpetuation of the New England cottontail as a viable species in Massachusetts may additionally be enhanced by the creation of Eastern cottontail-free reserves until such times as these habitat techniques and practices can be widely implemented. New England cottontails have been introduced to one of the Boston Harbor Islands, and other islands are being contemplated as release sites.

Landowners interested in managing their land for New England cottontails (and other wildlife which depend on similar habitats) can download A Landowner's Guide to New England Cottontail Habitat Management links to PDF file (17 MB) , published by the Environmental Defense Fund .

Why Are Cottontail Populations Changing?

Populations of New England cottontails are in decline due to the destruction or modification of favorable habitat, to displacement by the highly adaptable Eastern cottontail, and to increases in medium-sized predators (skunks, raccoons, coyotes). Several subspecies of Eastern cottontails were introduced to the northeast in the 1920's and 1930's. These rabbits developed into established populations showing a high degree of hybrid vigor and ability to exploit a wide range of habitats. Perhaps, in the scramble to occupy new patches of early successional scrubland habitat, Eastern cottontails have been able to move into and exploit these sites more quickly than the New England species.