|The cottontail rabbit got its name from its short, fluffy tail, which is white like all the rabbits underparts. The rest of the rabbit?s soft, silky fur is pale, buff-gray with black tips above and cinnamon red on the neck area and legs. Cottontails have always been plentiful in Wisconsin, as attested to by Indian and settler records. Early hunters and trappers enjoyed the meat and valued the skins, although prices for rabbit pelts are very low today. Cottontails extended their range, and increased in numbers, as farmers continued to push northward, but recent decades have seen a decline of rabbits as rural land becomes converted for homes and other man-made structures. The state population today remains fairly stable at over five million, with an estimated four million rabbits in the southern two-thirds of the state and near urban areas in much of the northeastern third and one million in the more heavily forested northern areas. When habitat is good, like abundant agricultural fields, cottontails can be as dense as two rabbits per acre, but the more normal density is one per acre.
Rabbit fur is not waterproof, and constant grooming is necessary to keep the hair in good condition. The average adult cottontail is 14-18 inches long and weighs 2-4 pounds. Females are generally larger than males by one to ten percent. Rabbits have very acute hearing aided by large elongate ears, which can be moved to catch sounds from all directions. A rabbit's eyesight is also excellent. Cottontails can run up to 18 miles per hour, but they can only keep this pace for about 1/2 mile. They normally move about slowly by short hops and jumps, saving their speed burst to escape predators like foxes, owls and coyotes, but a wary rabbit will often squat down and "freeze" to try and outsmart these predators. Cottontail tracks can be seen in muddy areas or snow, and recognized by the larger (3 1/2" x 1 3/4") hind feet tracks being in front of the smaller, round (1" x 1") prints of the front feet. The distance between the two sets of footprints is generally about six inches, and leaps can be two to seven feet apart. The rabbits toes are clawed, and combined with powerful legs, sometimes make formidable weapons used by males to drive off competitors during the breeding season. Cottontails thump their hind feet on the ground to communicate with each other, and emit a distinctive shrill "scream" when attacked.
Mating occurs from February to August, and during this time, male cottontails form a social structure where dominant males will most often breed with the females in an area. Dominant males will drive off or aggressively fight subordinate male intruders, and females also become territorial, defending an area against other females. Cottontail males engage in a dance-like courtship behavior to attract a female, and once mating has occurred, he goes on to attract more females. The female makes a nest, or "form", by scraping out a shallow depression in the ground and lining it first with grass and finally with her own fur. Females give birth to 3-6 young, and can have two or three litters per year, mating almost immediately after the young are born. The number of young per litter and the annual number of litters, makes cottontails an extremely productive species. Young cottontails are born naked, blind, and almost totally helpless, weighing only about one ounce and measuring a mere four inches in length. They get very little attention from their mother, as she only returns occasionally to the nest to nurse them, but they develop rapidly. Their eyes are open at two weeks, their fur is growing, and they can play and forage outside the nest. At four to five weeks, they are weaned and independent, and at four months they are mature. Some young cottontails, from early litters, may breed in the first year, but it is more common to wait until the following spring.
Cottontails are perfectly adapted for ripping and gnawing vegetation, with sharp, constantly growing incisor teeth that enable them to chew away the inner and outer bark from trees. In summertime, rabbits feed on green vegetation including the buds, sprouts, and shoots of woody plants, and they are particularly fond of legumes (alfalfa, clover, peas, and beans), grass, dandelions and lettuce. During the winter, cottontails feed on the tender parts of many kinds of trees and shrubs, when green vegetation is not available, and they are partial to apple, blackberry, birch, maple, willow, basswood and sumac. It's not unusual to find young trees, which have been stripped of bark to a height of three to four feet by feeding rabbits when the snow is deep.
Rabbits inhabit a wide variety of habitats in Wisconsin. Favorite habitat includes sparsely wooded areas with plenty of brush thickets or dry, grassy wetland edges, and agricultural lands, including hayfields, grassy cornfields and brushy fencerows. Cottontails can even be found in the most densely planted orchards and gardens, and almost any area which provides adequate winter cover and escape routes such as protected woodlots, rock or brush piles, hollow logs, and shrub thickets. Home ranges are fairly small, with males averaging six to eight acres and females at two to three acres. Rabbits are generally active at any time of the day or night year-round, but they tend to be most active during the first 2-4 hours after sunrise and before sunset. Other than when they have young, rabbits are solitary animals usually traveling alone or in pairs. Rabbits like brush piles or small conifers for cover, and sometimes, distinct "runways" can be found leading to and from these hiding places. The cottontail rabbit is the second most hunted game animal in Wisconsin, yet hunting does not seem to greatly affect populations. The high reproductive rate is mainly kept in balance by predators, such as foxes, mink, weasels, skunks, coyotes, owls, hawks, snakes and dogs. Rabbits can be infested by a number of parasites and diseases, including ticks, mites and viral skin tumors. The most fatal disease affecting rabbits is Tularemia, which is also transmissible to man, and people should not handle or dress rabbits when they have cuts or abrasions on their hands, and rabbit meat must always be thoroughly cooked.
Cottontail rabbit hunting can be great fun for old and young, beginner and expert, and it is a wonderful way to introduce young people to the sport of hunting. Hunting is divided into northern and southern zones in Wisconsin, with Highways 10 and 54 forming the dividing line, and the firearm season is closed in Milwaukee County. Rabbit hunting and beagles, those lovable, loving, eager-to-please dogs, has been a long-standing tradition. When rabbit hunting with a dog, there is some kind of action all the time, reducing the chance of boredom in young hunters. One good way to get the feel of a rabbit hunt is to carry an unloaded shotgun into good looking rabbit habitat and let the dog do the hunting. When the dog jumps a rabbit, the chase is on, and you have plenty of time to load your gun and watch for the location where the rabbit might return. Contrary to popular opinion, rabbits don't run in circles, but they do tend to run within their range, which means that if you don't over hunt the situation and remain still, the dog will generally chase the rabbit back to within your shooting range. Be mindful of where other hunters are positioned, if you are not hunting alone, and while waiting for your shot, always verify in what directions you may safely shoot. Rabbit hunting, even with all its action, can consist of calm, collected actions, and there is no need for rushed decisions, mistakes, confusion, or snap-shooting. Don't be tempted to shoot rabbits on the jump, if you are hunting with a dog, but instead let the dog work the scent trail and bring the rabbits around. It's also a good idea to have all members of the hunting party wear ample blaze orange clothing, and the dogs should be adorned with bells so that everyone will know exactly where they are at all times.