South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Inc.
FIND A BABY COTTONTAIL? READ THIS BEFORE YOU CALL US.
PLEASE DO WHAT'S BEST FOR THE ANIMAL AND NOT FOR "YOU!"
The Eastern cottontail, the most widely distributed of all cottontails, resides in harmony with many other wildlife species on the Texas South Plains. The 2-3 pound adult cottontail characteristically has a white-buffy undercoat and distinctive white tail, hence the name “cottontail.” Both sexes have gray and brownish-black dorsal fur. They’re generally a nocturnal species, foraging from dusk until dawn. The diet consists of a variety of green plants, bark, buds, fruit, and foliage of woody plants and grasses. Cottontails will invade residential gardens if given the opportunity.
Cottontails are not always the timid creatures portrayed in literature, and can defend themselves with blows from their front feet as well as from bites. They rely on their senses of hearing and smell, and can vocalize with an ear-piercing scream if frightened or threatened. The cottontail is an essential element of the food chain, and is prey (food) for some predatory birds, mammals, and snakes. Mortality rates, as high as 90% among the young for many rabbit species, are offset by the animals’ high reproductive capacity. The average life span in the wild for a cottontail is ½ to two years.
A female may have several litters a year, and typically, there are 4-7 bunnies in a litter. The gestation period is approximately 28 days. Before birth, the mother prepares a shallow depression in the ground and lines this with her warm, soft belly fur and covers it with grass, leaves and other natural debris to help camouflage the nest site. Cottontails are about 3-4 inches long at birth. The eyes are shut and ears flat; but within a week the rabbits are fully furred. Although helpless when born, the youngsters grow rapidly, and eyes open within seven to ten days. Jackrabbits, on the other hand, are born with their eyes open, furred, and are virtually self-sufficient.
At any time from 10-20 days after birth, young cottontails may leave the nest, but remain in the vicinity hiding under bushes or shrubbery during the day, and venturing out after dark to nurse. By four weeks of age, the bunnies are independent, and weigh about 4-7 ounces. The first week or so of independence is a risky time: youngsters are learning to hide or sprint in perilous situations. Sometimes, they may panic and freeze. At this explorative stage, some are discovered, thought to be orphans, and are picked up by “well-meaning” people. True orphans are tiny, furless, and out of the nest, cold and lethargic, covered with parasites or dehydrated.
Emergency situations include injuries and illnesses such as being in a dog or cats mouth, broken limbs, bleeding, head tilt, lacerations or puncture wounds, or inability to stand or move without falling over.
*A mother’s absence from the nest does not indicate the young have been abandoned. She will only visit at dawn and dusk to nurse her youngsters, minimizing the risk of leading predators to the nest. On the surface of the ground, cottontail nests are vulnerable to detection and assault by dogs, cats, weed-eaters and lawn mowers. If a nest site is inadvertently disturbed, replace the grasses back over the youngsters, and leave them alone! Resist the urge to pick up and handle the babies; this may cause the mother to leave and not return. If you must move or replace them, do so with gloves.
To be sure the mother has returned, place a place a string in a circle around the nest, and an "X" across the top. Leave the nest alone for 24 hours, and then check the string. Keep pets and children away from the site. If the string has been disturbed, mom has most likely visited and is caring for her family.
Mowing the immediate area should be avoided. A good rule of thumb: most animals that appear alert, bright-eyed or are trying to run away from you do not need your help. Of course, if the bunnies are injured, they should be brought in promptly for care.
*A cottontail should never be kept as a “pet.” These animals are very easily stressed, and do not adapt well to captivity. They are also prone to fractures, and they may easily manage to escape your grip and fall to the ground. When discovered, people often assume they are “tame” when in reality, they are extremely frightened. Cottontails present many challenges for wildlife rehabilitators and can be difficult to raise; sometimes the stress of simply being handled is enough to kill them. Additionally, they require proper formulas that include goat’s milk, proper housing, care, and supplementary foods until they are weaned.
*If you feel the bunnies are in trouble do not feed them. Milk products and human baby products are detrimental. If you must transport displaced, orphaned or injured cottontails to the Wildlife Center, place them in a shoebox lined with a washcloth; close and tape the box; bunnies can jump and knock the lid off. Do not handle the bunnies, or allow children to handle them.
Like bunnies of storybooks and stuffed toys, cottontails are “cute” especially when they are youngsters, but are not meant to be in captivity, cuddled and handled. Over the years, a few individuals have called for advice, and then insist “they want their child to raise the animal.” Instead of the outcome being a “positive” wildlife experience for a young person, almost 100% of the time this results in disaster for the animal, and has an unhappy ending for the child as well.
Last but not least: If a nest of cottontails is discovered in an extremely inconvenient place, such as the middle a kennel, the nest can be moved about 6 inches every day until it is out of immediate danger. The mother will continue to care for the litter. This is a solution which involves keeping dogs, the usual suspects, away from the nest or out of the fenced in yard, for a shorter period of time.
Remember: Cottontails that are as large as a tennis ball or larger - and look healthy - should be lefft alone unless they are injured!
Stress and malnutrition are the biggest killers of baby birds and mammals!