In spring and fall, rabbits use a grassor weed shelter called a “form.” Theform is a nestlike cavity on the surfaceof the ground, usually made in densecover. It gives the rabbit some protec-tion from weather, but is largely usedfor concealment. In summer, lushgreen growth provides both food andshelter, so there is little need for aform.
General Biology andReproduction
Rabbits live only 12 to 15 months, andprobably only one rabbit in 100 lives tosee its third fall, yet they make themost of the time available to them.Cottontails can raise as many as 6 lit-ters in a year. Typically, there are 2 to 3litters per year in northern parts of thecottontail range and up to 5 to 6 insouthern areas. In the north (Wiscon-sin), first litters are born as early as lateMarch or April. In the south (Texas),litters may be born year-round. Littersize also varies with latitude; rabbitsproduce 5 to 6 young per litter in thenorth, 2 to 3 in the south. The rabbit’sgestation period is only 28 or 29 days,and a female is usually bred againwithin a few hours of giving birth.Rabbits give birth in a shallow nestdepression in the ground. Young cot-tontails are born nearly furless withtheir eyes closed. Their eyes open in 7to 8 days, and they leave the nest in 2to 3 weeks.Under good conditions, each pair ofrabbits could produce approximately18 young during the breeding season.Fortunately, this potential is rarelyreached. Weather, disease, predators,encounters with cars and hunters, andother mortality factors combine tokeep a lid on the rabbit population.Because of the cottontail’s reproduc-tive potential, no lethal control is effec-tive for more than a limited period.Control measures are most effectivewhen used against the breeding popu-lation during the winter. Habitatmodification and exclusion techniquesprovide long-term, nonlethal control.
Food Habits, Damage,and DamageIdentification
The appetite of a rabbit can causeproblems every season of the year.Rabbits eat flowers and vegetables inspring and summer. In fall and winter,they damage and kill valuable woodyplants.Rabbits will devour a wide variety offlowers. The one most commonlydamaged is the tulip; they especiallylike the first shoots that appear in earlyspring.The proverbial carrot certainly is notthe only vegetable that cottontails eat.Anyone who has had a row of peas, beans, or beets pruned to ground levelknows how rabbits like these plants.Only a few crops—corn, squash,cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, andsome peppers—seem to be immunefrom rabbit problems.Equally annoying, and much moreserious, is the damage rabbits do towoody plants by gnawing bark or clip-ping off branches, stems, and buds. Inwinter in northern states, when theground is covered with snow for longperiods, rabbits often severely damageexpensive home landscape plants,orchards, forest plantations, and parktrees and shrubs. Some young plantsare clipped off at snow height, andlarge trees and shrubs may be com-pletely girdled. When the latter hap-pens, only sprouting from beneath thedamage or a delicate bridge graftaround the damage will save the plant.A rabbit’s tastes in food can vary con-siderably by region and season. In gen-eral, cottontails seem to prefer plantsof the rose family. Apple trees, blackand red raspberries, and blackberriesare the most frequently damagedfood-producing woody plants,although cherry, plum, and nut treesare also damaged.Among shade and ornamental trees,the hardest hit are mountain ash, bass-wood, red maple, sugar maple, honeylocust, ironwood, red and white oak,and willow. Sumac, rose, Japanese bar- berry, dogwood, and some woodymembers of the pea family are amongthe shrubs damaged.Evergreens seem to be more suscep-tible to rabbit damage in some areasthan in others. Young trees may beclipped off, and older trees may bedeformed or killed.The character of the bark on woodyplants also influences rabbit browsing.Most young trees have smooth, thin bark with green food material just beneath it. Such bark provides an easy-to-get food source for rabbits. Thethick, rough bark of older trees oftendiscourages gnawing. Even on thesame plant, rabbits avoid the rough bark but girdle the young sprouts thathave smooth bark.Rabbit damage can be identified by thecharacteristic appearance of gnawingon older woody growth and the clean-cut, angled clipping of young stems.Distinctive round droppings in the im-mediate area are a good sign of theirpresence too.Rabbit damage rarely reaches econo-mic significance in commercial fieldsor plantations, but there are excep-tions. For example, marsh rabbits have been implicated in sugarcane damagein Florida. Growers should always bealert to the potential problems caused by locally high rabbit populations.
In most states, rabbits are classified asgame animals and are protected assuch at all times except during thelegal hunting season. Some state regu-lations may grant exceptions to prop-erty owners, allowing them to trap orshoot rabbits outside the normal hunt-ing season on their own property.
Damage Prevention andControl Methods
One of the best ways to protect a back-yard garden or berry patch is to put upa fence. It does not have to be tall orespecially sturdy. A fence of 2-foot (60-cm) chicken wire with the bottom tight