The New England cottontail was first described as a species in 1895 from a Connecticut specimen. It is the only cottontail species native to the Northeast. The species has now been split into two, with the newly-described Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus) inhabiting the Appalachian Mountains from New York to Georgia and Alabama, and the New England cottontail found from the Hudson River Valley of New York through central and southern New England.
During the last 25-50 years, New England cottontails appear to have decreased sharply in numbers and distribution over most of their range. It is listed as a species of regional conservation concern throughout the Northeast based upon threats to its survival, lack of data, limited range, and other special concerns.
In June 2004, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) found that there was substantial need for protection of the New England cottontail under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and initiated a review. In 2006, the USFWS determined that federal listing was warranted but precluded due to other listing priorities. However, the New England cottontail was given the highest listing priority in the Northeast. Further action is pending.
Eastern cottontails reach sexual maturity at 2-3 months of age. The breeding period is from March to September, but most commonly it is April to September.
The gestation period averages 28 days, with an average litter size 5 to 6 young (range: 3-8). There may be 3 to 4 litters per year. The young leave the nest at about 3 to 5 weeks of age. The female does not dig the burrow, but uses an abandoned woodchuck den or excavates a shallow depression in soft earth in dense vegetation.
New England cottontails probably become sexually mature during their second year. The breeding period is from March to July, occasionally continuing to September. The gestation period is 28 days, with the litter size averaging 5 (range: 3-8). There are 2 or 3 litters per year.
Eastern cottontails are now known to occur in all of Massachusetts' 14 counties.
Activity & Food Habits
New England cottontails have home ranges between 0.5 to 8.3 acres. Males have larger home ranges than females. These cottontails are active at dawn and dusk or at night, with most feeding in the few hours after sunrise or sunset. They feed on tender grasses and herbs in spring and summer, while utilizing the bark, twigs, and buds of shrubs and young trees in winter.
Home ranges of Eastern cottontails range from about 0.5 to 40 acres. Adult males have larger home ranges than do females. Like New England cottontails, they are active at dawn, dusk, and early evening. They feed on grasses and herbaceous plants in summer, and woody seedlings, bark, twigs, and buds in winter.