Lots of hunters head to the woods in search of cottontails each year. These small mammals are fast and elusive, and can be mighty tough to spot when they do their typical "freeze in one spot" routine, and they will often remain motionless for minutes at a time, believing that in stillness lies safety. And they're often right about that - which is the reason many rabbit hunters use dogs to find the rabbits and get them up and moving.
Young: Kit or Bunny
Nest: Cottontails may nest on the ground or in an underground hole.
The cottontail rabbit is about 14 to 18 inches long with a short tail that's white on the underside (hence the name cottontail). They weigh from 1.75 to 3.5 pounds. Their fur is very soft, and the hides are delicate. Coloration varies from a reddish brown to dark gray, with white on the belly.
Their long ears are a signature feature, and may be held up and swivelled to provide excellent directional hearing. They have small front paws and use their much larger hind feet to propel themselves, sometimes at great speed.
They have rodent-type sharp front teeth, used to nip off grass and other vegetation for food.
Cottontails live on the ground and usually don't do much climbing. They like edges where thick brush and fields meet, or any other combination of open areas with thick cover nearby. They will eat grass, flowers (wild or domestic), weeds, and other vegetation, which is plentiful in such areas. They may be found in wet areas around swamps and the like, but don't necessarily have to drink - they can get the moisture they need from dew and from their food.
The cottontail rabbit is an interesting critter. At times it will walk slowly with a kind of hump-backed gait, placing its two front feet ahead together and moving its rear feet ahead, also together. When startled or frightened, it can bound ahead in a series of very fast hops, putting a lot of distance between you and it in a short time.
As mentioned earlier, these rabbits will often freeze in place, believing they are hiding. Sometimes this works well, but other times they will freeze right out in the open, making them easy targets. They don't seem to know the difference between hiding on a lawn or in the brush.
Like other wild animals, cottontails feed mostly during the early morning and late evening, although weather or other things may cause them to feed at other times. They can be found out and about at night, so presumably they are perfectly happy to feed in the dark at times, as well.
They eat things like grass, weeds, flowers, leaves, clover, and the like. They may even gnaw twigs or strip bark from trees if conditions (such as a winter snows) make other food hard to get.
Cottontail rabbits have a widely variable lifespan. While some estimate that they may live as long as a decade in captivity, on the other end of the extreme is a life expectancy of just four months. It's realistic to expect a average cottontail in the wild to live no longer than a year or so.
Breeding may occur throughout the year in the southern reaches of its range, or in colder climates may be restricted to spring and summer. Litter size varies, but the average is about four kits per litter. Does are capable of producing large numbers of young, which is a good thing considering their short life expectancy due to the large numbers of predators that feed on them.
Gestation time is about 4 weeks, and when born the kits are tiny, blind, and helpless. But by the time they are 4 months old or so, they have pretty much grown to adult size. Does may bear young before they are a year old.
Cottontails have been known to thump the ground with their big hind feet, presumably to communicate with other rabbits. They have been known to grunt softly at times, and when attacked by a predator they may emit a blood-curdling scream that will chill you straight to the core. Trust me on this.
The cottontail rabbit is definitely a creature worthy of the chase. They are good eating, plentiful and prolific, and can be quite challenging to hunt. Hunting them with beagle dogs is popular in some areas, and this method definitely produces a lot more action and adrenaline than stalking them.
Here in the deep south of the USA, rabbits are often not hunted until after the first frost. Dad taught me that this is because they carry a number of diseases and parasites, which the cold weather helps to kill off.
When they run from a foe, cottontails generally circle back to where they started their sprint, which is nice to know if you'd like to have rabbit for supper. Guns for cottontails can be anything from a 22 rifle to a shotgun of whatever size is handy. At close range, though, you don't want to shoot at a rabbit's center mass with a full-choked 12-gauge, as a friend discovered some years ago. What's left ain't worth eating. Aim just in front of the nose in close-range situations when you're toting a scattergun.
Rabbit hunting is often how hunters get their start, and it can become addictive to the point where some hunters dedicate all of their hunting to cottontails.
- Russ Chastain