Thirteen species of cottontail rabbits (genus Sylvilagus) occur in the Western Hemisphere, 9 of which are found in the US. All are similar in appearance and behavior, but differ in size, range, and habitat. The differences result in a large variation of issues related to damage.
In most states, rabbits are classified as game animals and are protected, except during legal hunting seasons. Some state regulations grant exceptions to property owners to allow them to trap or shoot rabbits outside the normal hunting season on their own property if the animals are causing damage. Check with your state and local authorities for options in dealing with cottontails.
For the purposes of this module, the eastern cottontail rabbit (S. floridanus, Figure 1) will be considered representative of the genus. Cottontail rabbits must be distinguished from jackrabbits and other hares: the latter generally are larger in size and have longer ears. Cottontails appear gray or gray-brown in the field, but the color comes from a blend of white, gray, brown, and black guard hairs over a soft gray or brown underfur, with a characteristic rusty-brown spot on the nape of the neck. Rabbits molt twice a year but remain the same general color. They have large ears, and their hind feet are much larger than the forefeet. The tail is short and white on the undersurface, similar to a cotton ball.
Most species of cottontails prefer open, brushy, or cultivated areas, but some frequent marshes, swamps, or deserts. Swamp rabbits (S. aquaticus) and marsh rabbits (S. palustris) are strong swimmers. Pygmy rabbits (S. idahoensis) weigh 1 pound, while swamp rabbits weigh up to 5 pounds. Eastern cottontail rabbits are 15 to 19 inches in length and weigh 2 to 4 pounds.
The range of eastern cottontail rabbits extends from southern New England along the Canadian border west to eastern Montana and south into Mexico and South America (Figure 2).
The most common species of the western US is the desert cottontail (Figure 3) and mountain cottontail (Figure 4). Refer to a field guide for information on the ranges of other species.
Voice and Sounds
Rabbits generally are silent, but can emit a high pitched squeal when they are in distress.
Tracks and Signs
Tracks of rabbits typically are found in snow or fine soil (Figure 5a) and present a 1-1-2 pattern (Figure 5b). Droppings of rabbits often are easy to identify as bunches of round balls (Figure 6).