Field Guide to Fort Myers Beach: Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

SAND LIFE MAGAZINE, JULY 2016

234

Yes, I know what most of you are thinking. This is a beach area, not someplace where you can find rabbits. Why on earth are you writing an article on rabbits? That would be because so many homes now exist all over Fort Myers Beach, providing a drier open grass habitat for these critters to hop around in, it’s more likely you will find Cottontails close to the beach. You can find the Eastern Cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, throughout Florida except in the Keys, coastal marshes and dense forests. They are normally crepuscular – active during sunrise and sunset – to nocturnal in nature. However they can be found during the day if you look hard enough in their favorite hiding spots. Cottontails do not dig their own burrows like other rabbit species do. Occasionally they will borrow other creature’s burrow that they have dug, a prime example being gopher tortoise holes. They normally take shelter in what is called a “form.” The form is a nest-like cavity on the surface of the ground, normally made in dense cover. Forms can be found in hiding spots such as brushy fence rows, gullies filled with debris, brush piles, or landscaped backyards where they can find food and shelter.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbits on average live up to fifteen months. This being the case they make the most of their time around. Cottontails can raise as many as six litters in a year. In Florida litters may be born year-round, but mainly February through September, and females can usually breed again within a few hours of giving birth. Rabbits give birth in a shallow nest depression in the ground. The nest is a slanting depression dug in soft soil, lined with vegetation and fur, normally made under dense cover. Each litter of rabbits contains two to three babies called kits. Cottontails are born nearly furless with their eyes closed. In seven to eight days they open their eyes, and kits begin to explore their surroundings at twelve to sixteen days old in short trips. The mother rabbit does not stay in the nest with the kits but twice a day she will come back to the opening of the nest to let the kits nurse. At five weeks old the kits are totally independent and leave the nesting site.

If you find Eastern Cottontails in your yard be prepared for their big appetites. Cottontails are herbivores, which means that their diet consists of only plants. This includes bark, twigs, leaves, fruit, buds, flowers, grass, seeds – basically any type of plant is fair game. Cottontail rabbits have been known to eat up to the equivalent of forty two percent of their weight every day. This means that if you own a garden these little critters may turn into your worst nightmare. If your goal is to keep rabbits away from your garden there are some natural alternatives to try first. First off, if there are hiding spots for rabbits in your yard such as tall grass, rock piles and shrubs, take them out. They also like to hide under porches, decks, and sheds so block those entrances. Without a place to hide, the Cottontails will quickly leave. Repellants that taste bad to rabbits are also a good way to deter rabbits from munching on your flowers and the best part is that they do not harm the rabbits.

 

Rae Blake
Environmental Technician, Town of Fort Myers Beach