Two types of cottontail rabbits live in Massachusetts: the Eastern Cottontail and the New England Cottontail. While similar in appearance, the New England Cottontail has shorter ears and a slightly smaller body size. Both species can be differentiated from the snowshoe hare by their lack of season variation in their fur coloring. There are twelve species of cottontails in the United States, with the Eastern Cottontail being the most common.
Cottontails like to live in brushy areas, such as fields bordering woodlands, brush piles, and thickets. They survive well in the suburbs and get all they need for food, water, and shelter there. Cottontails are most active at dawn and dusk and forage for food into the early nighttime hours. In the spring and summer they eat grasses and leafy plants; in the fall and winter they primarily eat buds, twigs, bark, and young trees.
Eastern Cottontails are sexually mature at about two months of age and breed from April to September. They usually have three to four litters of about five kittens. New England Cottontails are sexually mature at age two, breed from March to about August, and have three litters a year. Nests typically are made in small depressions in the ground and are lined with grass and fur from the mother.
POSSIBLE CONFLICTS & SOLUTIONS
Because rabbits enjoy browsing on plants in yards, damage to gardens and ornamental shrubbery is the most common conflict between humans and rabbits.
Rabbit damage to plants is identified by the neat-clipped appearance of browsed vegetation, as well as obvious animal tracks and scat in the form of small piles of pea-sized pellets. (Deer droppings look similar but are larger in size.)
The most effective way to keep rabbits out of a flower or vegetable garden is to erect a fence around the garden 2-3 feet high. This is best done using chicken wire or hardware cloth (a heavy-gauge woven wire mesh fencing material) staked about every 4 feet and buried into the ground at least 8 inches (preferably 12 inches) with an outward L-shaped bend at the bottom to prevent animals from burrowing down and underneath the fence. Chicken wire and hardware cloth can be purchased at most gardening and hardware stores.
Commercial repellents with the active ingredients ziram, thiram, capsaicin, or denatonium saccharide may work to repel rabbits in the yard or garden (read labels before using these products on plants that will be eaten).
The following homemade hot pepper repellent can also be effective, when applied to flower bulbs and plants:
Ingredients: 1 chopped yellow onion, 1 chopped jalapeno pepper, and 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper. Directions: Boil ingredients for 20 minutes in 2 quarts of water. Let it cool and strain through cheesecloth. Apply with spray bottle. This homemade repellent will deter any animal where it is applied and will last 3-5 days. This recipe is courtesy of Urban Wildlife Rescue, Inc. If using this mixture with a vegetable garden, make sure to wash vegetables well before eating them.
Remember that this homemade repellent and other repellents need to be reapplied regularly, as well as after rain, in order to be effective.
Sprinklers triggered by motion detectors can also discourage rabbits from investigating gardens.
Protect tree bark from rabbit chewing by wrapping trees with hardware cloth or wire mesh. The cloth or mesh should be wrapped loosely around the tree with at least four inches of space between the tree and the cloth/mesh to allow for growth. It should also extend into the ground about 6 inches, and at least 2 feet above the snow line. Hardware cloth and wire mesh can be purchased from most hardware stores.
Keeping grass mowed short and removing ground cover near the garden also helps limit rabbit movement and reduce damage.
PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
Like any mammal, rabbits can get rabies. However, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infection in rabbits is extremely rare, and rabbits have not been known to transmit rabies to humans. Rabbits also can be infected with tularemia, which is transmissible to humans if an infected rabbit is handled or eaten undercooked. Ticks that transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever may use rabbits as a host.