Eastern Cottontail Survival Story

provided by Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife

The Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is the most common rabbit species in North America. They are found throughout the southern part of the United States and have expanded their range westward. They will inhabit rural or urban areas, but will go where there is food. Most commonly woodlands, pastures, streams, ponds, fields of hay, flowerbeds, or grassy prairies.

A rabbit’s metabolism runs substantially quicker than that of a cat or dog. Their systems require a continual flow of nutrition in order to get the calories they need to maintain a healthy weight. This is one of the reasons they nibble away at vegetation all day and into the night. Often times, they can be spotted foraging before dawn, early morning, before dusk, and at sunset. The dew on the grass and other plants helps them stay hydrated.

Cottontails will venture out to eat during the day and risk being sighted by a predator to lure the predator away from the nest. Like many prey species, rabbits’ eyes are on the sides of their heads so they have trouble seeing directly ahead. Thankfully, their incredible hearing, taste, and smell make up for their poor eyesight. Many well-meaning people will bring in baby bunnies they found “without a mother”. Cottontails are actually excellent mothers who feed their young twice a day usually at dawn and dusk. Their nest’s are made of dried grasses, leaves, and fur plucked from the mother’s abdomen allowing easy access for feeding.

These rabbits live in small social colonies called “warrens”. Female cottontails will barely scratch the surface of the ground to make a shallow nest. Babies will feed while lying on their backs in the nest while the mother lays across the top looking for danger. Mom will silently command the babies to stay in the nest while she stays far away from them to keep them safe from predators. Though she can lure away wild predators, their shallow nest still leaves them vulnerable to curious dogs, cats, and humans.

Even though cottontails typically make their shallow nests in open fields, they can still find refuge under piles of vegetative debris and brush. Over the Halloween weekend, three infant eastern cottontails (# 21-5523, 5524, 5525) were admitted after being pulled from a lit bonfire. When one bunny emerged from the flames, the finders frantically searched for any others who could still be at risk. Once they were all found, the rescuers brought them in for examination. Veterinarians found each individual to have some singed fur. Due to concern for lung damage from smoke inhalation, the bunnies were immediately placed in an oxygen chamber for support. They have since been weaned from supplemental oxygen and will continue to be closely monitored under supportive care.

Please remember to check your surroundings before engaging in any lawn work involving tree clearing, mowing, hedge trimming, or burning of brush. During spring and early summer, survey your yard before letting dogs roam around off-leash. If you do find any bunnies and worry they may be orphaned, please call your nearest wildlife center. Mother rabbits are unlikely to be around the nest during the daytime and will likely return later in the day. One foolproof way of recognizing if the mother has been tending to the nest is to look at the babies’ bellies. If the belly is bloated and you can visualize a vertical line down the stomach (referred to as the milk line) then mom has been feeding them and will likely return.

If you care, leave it there! Although bunnies are cute and are popular pets, wild rabbits ARE NOT PETS!! Please never try to keep or raise a wild rabbit. Cottontails do not do well in captivity and are the hardest species to successfully rehab. At the clinic, all the cottontails not under intensive care are raised off-site with an experienced volunteer to reduce their stress levels for successful rehabilitation back to the wild! If you have questions or concerns please contact our wildlife hospital at 239-472-3644 #222 or send an email to info@crowclinic.org.

THIS WEEK AT CROW (10/30-11/5):
There were 44 new patients admitted to CROW’s Wildlife Hospital including seven eastern gray squirrels, 14 eastern cottontails, seven northern raccoons, two laughing gulls, a merlin, a marsh rabbit, a southern flying squirrel, a Cooper’s hawk, and a gopher tortoise. Recent Releases include a Virginia opossum, a gopher tortoise, a striped mud turtle, a mourning dove, a Mexican free-tailed bat, and two brown pelicans. Check out a full list of CROW’s current patients and recent releases!

Wildlife doesn’t have health insurance! Your donations help cover the costs of medical and rehabilitative care for over 5,000 patients admitted to CROW’s Wildlife Hospital each year.

About Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)
Established in 1968, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is a teaching hospital saving the sick, injured and orphaned native and migratory wildlife of Southwest Florida and beyond.  Through state-of-the-art veterinary care, public education programs and an engaging visitor center, CROW works to improve the health of the environment, humans and our animals through wildlife medicine. For more information, or to plan your visit, go to http://www.crowclinic.org. If you find an animal that is in need of help, call (239) 472-3644 ext. #222.

Leave a Comment

We are interested in articulate, well-informed remarks that are relevant to the article. We welcome your advice, your criticism and your unique insights into the issues of the day. To be approved for publication, your comments should be civil and avoid name-calling. It may take up to 24 hours for your comment to appear, if it is approved.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.