Members of the genus Lepus are born well-furred and able to move about. Little or no nest is prepared, although the young are kept hidden for 3 to 4 days. Females may produce up to 4 litters per year with 2 to 8 young per litter. Reproductive rates may vary from year to year depending on environmental conditions.
Where food and shelter are available in one place, no major daily movement of hares occurs. When food and shelter areas are separated, morning and evening movements may be observed. Daily movements of 1 to 2 miles (1.6 to 3.2 km) each way are fairly common. In dry seasons, 10-mile (16-km) round trips from desert to alfalfa fields have been reported.
Cottontails do not dig burrows, but rather use natural cavities or burrows excavated by other animals. Dens that are underground are used primarily in extremely cold or wet weather, or to escape from predators. Piles of brush and other cover often are used as alternatives to burrows. In spring and fall, rabbits use a shelter made from grass or weeds, which is called a “form.” The form is a cavity on the surface of the ground, usually made in dense cover. It gives rabbits some protection from weather but is largely used for concealment. In summer, lush green growth provides both food and shelter, leaving little need for a form. Rabbits give birth in a shallow nest depression in the ground.
Cottontails are not distributed evenly across a landscape. They tend to concentrate in favorable habitats such as brushy fence rows, edges of fields, gullies filled with debris, piles of brush, and backyards with extensive landscaping. They rarely are found in dense
forests or open grasslands. Fallow crop fields may provide suitable habitat. Cottontails generally spend their entire lives in an area of 10 acres or less, but they may move a mile or so from summer to winter range, or to a new food supply. Lack of food or cover usually motivates a rabbit to move to another area. In suburban areas, rabbits are numerous and mobile enough to fill any open habitat that is created when other rabbits are removed. Density of populations varies with habitat quality, but 1 rabbit per acre is a reasonable average.
Rabbits eat flowers (e.g., tulips) and vegetables (e.g., peas, beans, and beets) in spring and summer. In fall and winter, they damage and kill valuable woody trees and shrubs by clipping and gnawing the bark (Figure 7), particularly when snowfall is heavy. Crops, such as corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, and some peppers, seem to be immune from damage by rabbits. Preferences for types of food vary considerably by region and season. In general, cottontails seem to prefer plants in the rose family. Apple trees, black and red raspberries, and blackberries are the most frequently damaged food-producing woody plants, although cherry, plum, and nut trees also may be damaged.