Description: Eastern cottontails can be distinguished from jack rabbits by its smaller size, and from other species of cottontails in Kansas by: 1) size, 2) color, and 3) relative ear size. The desert cottontail is smaller, lighter in color, and has longer ears; the swamp rabbit is larger, darker in color, and has relatively shorter, rounded ears. There is seasonal variation between the summer and winter coats. The fur is soft and long, rusty brown above in summer, grayish brown in winter, and intermixed in both seasons with black guard hairs. The nape of the neck bears a rusty-red patch. The underparts are whitish and the chest brownish. Tops of the forefeet are more buffy than the legs. The front feet have five toes whereas the hind feet have only four. The skull has a bony network along the sides of the upper part of the rostrum. All species of rabbits in Kansas have two pairs of upper incisor teeth. The posterior pair is immediately behind the large anterior pair, and is smaller and more peg-like. The sexes are alike.
Size:: Adults may attain the following dimensions: total length 374-452 mm; tail 36-75 mm; hind foot 83-104 mm; ear 52-61 mm; weight 1-1.5 kilograms.
Range and Habitat: Eastern cottontails inhabit open forests, forest edges, brushy places, and weedy or grassy uncultivated fields near places of concealment. This species occurs throughout Kansas with four subspecies distributed as follows: northwestern Kansas, Sylvilagus floridanus similis; northeastern Kansas, Sylvilagus floridanus mearnsii; southwestern Kansas, Sylvilagus floridanus llanensis; and southeastern Kansas, Sylvilagus floridanus alacer.
Reproduction: Cottontails are prolific breeders and can produce as many as six or seven litters during seven months between early spring and late autumn. A female can become pregnant at the same time she is nursing young from a previous litter. The gestation period is between 28 and 30 days, after which one to nine (usually three or four) young are born in a surface nest or ground depression lined with dry grasses, plant fibers, and fur from the female's chest. At birth the young are about four inches long and are naked, blind, and helpless. At one week they have hair and in ten days their eyes are open. At about two weeks the young are capable of leaving the nest, but continue to nurse for a while longer from the female's eight nipples. A full complement of teeth is attained in a month and after four to five weeks the young have separated from the female. It takes only four or five months for the young to mature and by the following spring they are ready to breed. Females from early litters may reproduce in the late summer or autumn following their birth.
Habits: Although the nest sites and resting shelters of these rabbits are exposed on the surface of the ground, subterranean burrows are used for escape from predators or for protection from heavy rain and snow. They may remain in holes for as long as two days after a heavy snow. Usually the holes are abandoned burrows dug by other mammals, such as woodchucks, which the cottontail takes over and modifies. Cottontails are solitary, and usually encountered near a resting shelter or "form," a slight depression on the surface of the ground protected overhead by a canopy of grass or low shrubs. Escape is by fast acceleration, with abrupt changes of direction for short distances. Being mainly a nocturnal animal, eastern cottontails are often seen in the evening, at night, or in the early morning, crossing or running along the road sides. In daytime they will sometimes "freeze" and become inconspicuous to escape detection. Open trails in grass or weeds lead to feeding areas. If approached very closely, a cottontail may thump its hind feet on the ground, and if captured, it often emits a high-pitched, shrill scream.
Eastern cottontails are active all year, but are more noticeable in winter when they make tracks in the snow. Because of their high reproductive rate, numbers increase rapidly. Rabbits show major multi-annual fluctuations in numbers. Some years rabbits seem to be everywhere whereas in other years they are seldom seen. When rabbit populations reach high levels., predators may increasingly avail themselves of rabbits as a rich food resource.
Food: Food of the eastern cottontail is mainly green vegetation, and various kinds of plants are consumed according to availability. In winter tree bark is frequently eaten as an alternate food.
Remarks: Predators such as hawks, owls, eagles, skunks, foxes, coyotes, snakes, opossums, and raccoons prey upon adult and young eastern cottontails. This takes the pressure off other kinds of prey species that might not be as plentiful as the eastern cottontails. Cottontails live for less than one or two years in nature; about 75 percent die before they reach five months of age. Potentially they can live much longer (ten years). Sick or weak rabbits should be handled with caution because they may carry diseases such as tularemia. They may rarely harbor a virus, not harmful to the rabbit or humans, which produces a horn-like growth on the animal's head, giving it the appearance of an antlered rabbit. The tracks of eastern cottontails (and related species) in snow or soil can be confused with gray or fox squirrels, but in cottontails the hind feet usually remain parallel whereas in squirrels they point outward from each other. Tracks that lead to trees and then disappear are those of squirrels. Track width between hind feet and the general pattern of movement also can be used to differentiate the larger rabbit from the smaller squirrel.
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