Many animals seem to disappear in the wintertime. Some animals, like opossums, skunks, ground hogs and bats hibernate or go dormant so they can survive when there is no food for them to eat. When animals hibernate, their heart rate slows, body temperature drops and breathing slows down. Hibernating animals don’t need to feed. Instead, they live off stored fat they gained during the late summer and fall. One animal active during the winter is the cottontail rabbit. They don’t hibernate, but use other behaviors to survive winter.
The range of the Eastern cottontail rabbit includes the entire United States east of the Rocky Mountains; it’s found in both urban and rural areas in Nebraska. Cottontails in rural areas spend their entire lives on just a few acres, while cottontails in urban areas may not venture far from a single backyard.
Cottontails are vulnerable in the wintertime. To withstand cold temperatures and predation, they find shelter under brush piles, dense shrubs or buildings. They cannot dig, but will hide in cavities dug by other animals. Cottontails are more vulnerable to predators when there is snow on the ground because the gray-brown cottontail does not turn white, like their cousin, the snowshoe hare.
Rabbits have unique digestive systems allowing them to get nourishment when only low nutrient foods are available during winter. Rabbits have a unique, somewhat disgusting, behavior, known as “coprophagy,” in which they eat their own feces to gain nutrients that weren’t absorbed the first time through.
Unlike squirrels, cottontail rabbits do not hide food for the winter. When the ground is covered with snow for long periods, rabbits often severely damage home landscape plants, orchards, forest plantations and park trees and shrubs. Young plants may be clipped off at snow height, but large trees and shrubs may be completely girdled. If they survive the winter, they eat flowers and vegetables in spring and summer. The most commonly eaten plants are: tulips, pansies, hybrid lilies, hosta and asters. A rabbit’s tastes in food can vary considerably, but they do like to eat plants in the rose family. This very large family includes strawberries, raspberries, apples, pears, plums, and peaches. A few ornamentals in this family include potentilla, spirea, crabapple, serviceberry and hawthorne.
Cottontails begin mating as early as February and continue throughout the summer. They are very prolific. The average production is three or four litters a year, with four or five young per litter. In urban settings, dogs and cats are their primary predators.
Article written by Barb Ogg, UNL Extension Educator