Making Space for Bunnies

Did you know there are 20 different types of cottontail rabbit? All of the bunnies share one thing in common: their fluffy white tail.

Their other characteristics depend on where they live. The desert cottontail has adapted to living in the desert, while the swamp rabbit prefers—you guessed it—living in swamps and marshes. The swamp rabbit even enjoys swimming! Other cottontails include the mountain cottontail, the Eastern cottontail, which is the most common, and the New England cottontail, which is actually declining in numbers.

The most common rabbit in the New England states used to be the New England cottontail. These rabbits prefer living in forested areas with lots of young trees. New forests have lots of bushes and plants near the ground, called underbrush or thickets, where the New England cottontail likes to hide. They don’t like open areas. The Eastern cottontail doesn’t mind snacking on grasses in open fields, but the New England cottontail stays close to the underbrush and watches for predators.

Over the past 100 years or so, most of the forests in New England have grown older and have larger, more mature trees. As trees get taller, the tree canopy (the branches and leaves of the treetops) block the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Small shrubs and plants can’t survive without sunlight, and they die. Without those shrubs and plants, there is nowhere for the New England cottontail to hide.

Over the past 50 years, the population of the New England cottontail has dropped by 80 percent in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. At the same time, the population of Eastern cottontails has increased in those states. The populations of predators have also increased. Coyotes, foxes, bobcats, fishers, weasels, hawks, and owls all eat rabbits.

Fortunately for the New England cottontail, conservation groups want to help the bunny survive the changing environment. The Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve is creating 400 acres of young forest habitat in southern Maine. In addition to helping the New England cottontail, this young forest area will also help a bird called the American woodcock and pollinators such as butterflies. The American woodcock is a short, plump bird that lives in young forests. Its spotted brown color helps it blend with leaves as it walks on its short legs across the forest floor. As it walks, it searches for worms with its long bill.

In addition to creating young forest areas, the Wells Reserve is also teaching landowners in the area how to help the New England cottontail. The program is a partnership with several other organizations, companies, and groups, including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the American Forest Foundation, Avangrid Foundation, Eversource, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

When groups who care work together, they can make a difference for animals such as the little New England cottontail.