New England Cottontail
(Sylvilagus transitionalis) – Candidate for Federal Listing
New England cottontail rabbit. Photo Credit: Southern New England -
New York Bight Coastal Program, USFWS
Habitat: Young forest, thickets, brushy fields, power line rights of way, scrub-shrub wetlands.
Known occurrences in Maine: York and Cumberland Counties: recent occurrences in Berwick, Biddeford, Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Dayton, Elliot, Falmouth, Gorham, Kittery, Portland, Saco, Scarborough, South Berwick, South Portland, Wells, Westbrook, Windham, and York.
Threats: Development, maturing forest, predation, invasive species, deer browsing impacts on under-story.
The New England cottontail was designated as a candidate for Federal listing in 2006.
Species Description and Life History
The New England cottontail, also commonly known as the conie or cooney, is a medium-sized rabbit that occurs from southern Maine to the Hudson River Valley in New York. It is the only true rabbit in Maine and can be distinguished from the snowshoe hare by its smaller size, its brown coloration in winter, and black spot between the ears. Eastern cottontails are introduced species in New England, but do not occur in Maine. Eastern cottontails typically have a white blaze between the ears.
New England and Eastern cottontail. Credit: Sketch by Mark McCollough, USFWS
New England cottontails occupy early successional habitats - brushy fields, young forest, thickets, power line corridors, and scrub-shrub wetlands having high stem densities. The ideal habitat is 25 acres or larger of continuous early successional habitat within a larger landscape that provides shrub wetlands and dense thickets.
In the early 2000s, these cottontails were known from over 50 sites in Maine, but a series of heavy snow winters and habitat loss has reduced their distribution to fewer than a dozen sites, and less than 300 rabbits are believed to occur in the State.
New England cottontails feed on herbaceous vegetation in spring and summer and bark and twigs in the winter. Home ranges vary from one-half to eight acres, with adult males having larger home ranges than females. Breeding occurs in Maine in late March through August when females have two to three litters each with three to eight young. Normally, the high reproductive rate offsets high mortality rates. However, most cottontails occupy small habitat patches where there is increased access by predators and survival is low. Survival is greatest for cottontails that occupy patches larger than 12 acres.
The New England cottontail faces many threats. The loss of young forest and thicket habitat has led to the demise of the New England cottontail throughout their range. This rabbit was more widely distributed and abundant when agricultural landscape dominated New England. Habitats have aged into mature forest or have been heavily developed and fragmented. The introduction of exotic invasive species like multiflora rose, honeysuckle, autumn olive, and buckthorn has changed the character of habitat. Invasive species are a major component of many patches where cottontails are found; although they may provide the structure cottontails prefer, they may not provide the food needed for overwinter survival.
Native plant/shrub communities (juniper, blackberry, dogwood, spirea, viburnums, red maple, birch, aspen) are preferred. Deer are found in high densities in southern Maine, and their grazing may affect the structure and density of under-story plans that provide the dense habitat for cottontails. Elsewhere in their range, competition with eastern cottontails threatens populations. There is known about competition with snowshoe hares. Natural predators are abundant in urbanized landscapes, and predation is greater in winters having long periods of snow cover. Pets, especially domestic cats, can prey on young cottontails. Hunting for New England cottontails was discontinued in Maine in 2004, and the rabbit is now a State listed endangered species.
Considerable effort is being made to create and restore cottontail habitat in southern Maine. State and Federal funds are available to assist landowners with habitat projects. Landowners who wish to participate in New England cottontail conservation should contact the Maine Field Office Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. For further information see The Landowners Guide to New England Cottontail Management.
New England cottontails are declining throughout the Northeast, and their range has contracted by over 75 percent since 1960. They are gone from large portions of their range including Vermont, northern Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, and central Maine. They are nearly gone from New Hampshire.
Distribution in Maine:
The New England cottontail is limited to York and Cumberland County Maine, although their range once extended as far north as Augusta. In recent years cottontails have been found in Berwick, Biddeford, Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Dayton, Elliot, Falmouth, Gorham, Kittery, Portland, Saco, Scarborough, South Berwick, South Portland, Wells Westbrook, Windham, and York, although they could occur in other nearby towns where appropriate habitat exists.