Thom Smith: Native versus alien Berkshire cottontails


Q: This morning when going out for my morning paper, a rabbit scampered past me. The entire area is still packed with at least 2 feet of snow without a blade of grass in sight.

I know that rabbits eat grass, so my question is what is this rabbit eating to survive? The only "greenery" around are the low-hanging needles of pines and spruce which seem rough and unpalatable. Also, it was still dark and I'm wondering if rabbits are nocturnal.


A: Two years ago, I had an eastern cottontail that would appear beneath our bird feeders and later in the flower gardens most any time of the day, and probably night. I just didn't see it or them after dark.

The probability for activity among cottontails is mostly nighttime and times of low light, (maybe tending more toward being "crepuscular," or active dawn and dusk) although walkers and bike riders along the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail that runs between Lanesborough and Adams will tell you, they are apt to be seen crossing the path any time, except during mid-day.

As for their dining preferences, grass is but one staple. During the summer, others include clover, dandelion, plantain, and numerous other soft herbs, cultivated or wild.

Gardeners will confirm their passion for lettuce, peas and beans. In winter, they survive on a diet of bark, buds and twigs when snow cover prevents reaching grasses and other available greens.

They unfortunately also girdle young fruit and ornamental trees, but I don't think that, unless they are desperate, will eat evergreens.

The cottontail you probably knew in your youth is more than likely not the cottontail you know today. Our native New England cottontail has been mostly replaced by the alien eastern cottontail over the past 50 years, enough so, that our native bunny is quite uncommon today.

It appears that our native cottontail is a candidate for the endangered animal list. Both are nearly identical in the field and I would only hazard a guess at distinguishing the two by habitat.

The interloper is more confident in the open, like lawns and clearings, while the native is to be found in what biologists term high density thickets.

This replacement began to a small extent in the late 1800s. Then, during the first half of the 1900s, more than 16,000 eastern cottontails were brought in from the Midwest. To make matters even worse, Massachusetts game farms raised nearly 5,000 more for release.

Today, the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife is creating thicket areas that are so crucial to saving the native.

In his account of rabbits in Massachusetts Wildlife Magazine (2009, Number 3), Peter G. Mirick writes, "It's hard not to love bunnies. Everybody does: coyote, fox, fisher, mink, weasel, larger hawks and owls, big snakes, house cats, bobcats, domestic dogs and people."

He goes on to mention parasites, but you get the idea of their place; they are not only popular with us, but also a long list of predators.

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