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The Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is common throughout Indiana. It is one of the most important game species in the United States. Rabbit hunting has declined steadily since the 1940s with declines of small game hunters.
Cottontail numbers, like most animal populations, run in cycles of highs and lows. The population builds up, then disease, strife and poor reproduction reduce numbers to a low level. This low may continue for two or three years before a slow increase begins to bring numbers back to another high. Peak populations usually occur at intervals of about 10 years.
- The cottontail is reddish brown to gray along the back and sides, with a gray to white underside.
- The underside of the tail is white and is very bright when the rabbit runs, which is where the name cottontail is derived. Tail length averages 2 inches.
- It has large hind feet and long ears.
- A cottontail’s body is 15-19 inches in length,
- Weight ranges from 1.8 to 4.4 pounds, averaging 2.6 pounds, with females often weighing more.
- Some rabbits may live 4 or 5 years; the average life expectancy for rabbits that survive to leave the nest is only about 11 months.
DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
The Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States and south through Mexico. In this range, there are 12 subspecies with only one native to Indiana, Sylvilagus floridanus mearnsii.
The eastern cottontail is found throughout all of Indiana, from the cities to forests. Populations are highest where food and cover are best. Better-drained areas often support above-average rabbit densities. Rabbits seek habitat on the fringes of open spaces such as fields but are adaptable to other habitats.
Breeding starts as early as January and continues through early March.
Most courting activity is done during the early evening and around dawn. About 28 days after mating, the young are born, given a quick bath by the female and placed in the nest. The nest is usually in a slight hole in the ground dug with the doe's forefeet. It is constructed of grass and leaves, and lined with fur pulled from the female's breast and abdomen. If a nest is found, do not disturb it. The female only returns to the nest a few times a day to the nest in an effort to deter predators. Placing a small stick over the nest will allow you to determine if the female has returned. If the stick has been moved it is likely the female has returned and the nest is not abandoned. If you still have concerns about an orphaned/injured animal you can contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for help.
At birth, the young are furless, blind and weigh less than 1 ounce. Young rabbits grow fast. By the end of the first week, they have their eyes open, and by the end of the second week, they are beginning to leave the nest and feed on green plants. During the nest few nights they may return to the nest to nurse, spending the day as tiny forms in the grass nearby. At this time they still weigh only about 4 ounces, but are well developed and able to survive on their own.
The doe is able to mate again the same day the young are born and can start having a second litter. Litters may range from three to nine, with four or five about average. Although capable of having six litters each summer, the usual number is three or four. By 6 months, the young have reached minimum adult weight and are hard to distinguish from adults.
From the time a rabbit is born, it must fight for survival. Cold rains, predators, mowers and disease take their toll. Average life expectancy at birth is only about four months. For those who survive to leave the nest, the world holds more hazards. Highways take an ever-increasing number, especially where the only available cover is roadside ditches.
Rabbits are opportunistic feeders that eat vegetation almost exclusively. Some studies have shown up to 145 plant species in rabbit diets. They prefer small plant material and food types vary by season and availability.
Spring food habits
- New tender shoots of grass and clover.
Summer food habits
- Bark of sprouts and seedlings.
A rabbit’s diet can also become a nuisance to landowners. Almost anyone who has found a newly planted seedling cut off or tree barked may consider the cottontail a pest; however, the rabbit gets blamed for some damage caused by mice, squirrels and other rodents. Several types of repellents have been used with mixed success. About the only sure method of preventing damage is by using 1/2-inch mesh hardware cloth or 1-inch mesh chicken netting cut 12 to 18 inches long. This is formed into a cylinder, placed around the seedling and forced into the ground to hold it upright. This will protect the seedling for several years from mice as well as rabbits.
MANAGEMENT AND CONTROL
Rabbits eating plants
Rabbits have been known to eat plantings in gardens or flowerbeds. To protect your garden or berry patch, place a fence at least 2 feet high of chicken wire or strong hardware cloth with the bottom tight to the ground and buried a few inches. Be sure the mesh is 1 inch or smaller. Remove brush piles and other cover near the garden to make fewer areas for rabbits to hide.
Place a dome or cage of chicken wire over a small flower bed to allow vulnerable plants such as tulips to start growing before leaving them unprotected.
If you want to trap or shoot the rabbits, you will need a permit from the DNR, or you will need to use those methods legal only during the open hunting season (firearms can only be used where legal). Live cage-traps (wire or wood) that are baited with dried apples or dry ear corn can be effective in capturing cottontail rabbits.
Encouraging the rabbit’s natural enemies such as hawks, owls, and foxes can also help control the rabbits.
Rabbits as pets
White rabbits and other domestic rabbits make excellent pets; they become tame and allow children to handle them. Wild rabbits remain wild. Even those few that are raised by hand never really become tame. Wild rabbits, by nature, are timid animals and try to escape when handled and can do considerable damage with their hind feet in the process. Leave young rabbits where you find them or call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for help. It is also illegal to possess wildlife without special permits.
Hunting and management
Rabbit season in Indiana runs from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28 of the following year. A hunting license is required to hunt rabbits, unless you meet a license exemption. Hunting hours for rabbits on Fish & Wildlife areas can vary by property. Contact the specific property for details.
For additional rules and regulations, check out the Hunting and Trapping Guide.
It is illegal to hunt, take, or possess swamp rabbits, which are an endangered species in Indiana. The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is found only in the swamp lowlands along the Ohio and Wabash rivers. It spends much of its time up on stumps and logs, and swims readily when pursued. The swamp rabbit is larger than the cottontail, reaching almost 6 pounds.