NC State Extension Publications

Habitat Requirements

Cottontails live throughout the South from bottomlands and marshes to the highest mountain balds. They thrive in openings wherever shrubs, grasses, and forbs dominate. Cottontails commonly occur in old homesites, abandoned orchards and agricultural fields, young forest, sumac and other shrubland patches, and brush piles. They adapt easily to live near humans and are common in urban areas.

Eastern cottontail rabbit.

Eastern cottontail rabbit.

NC Wildlife Resource Commission  CC BY-SA - 4.0

Food


Common native rabbit foods.
Wild rye Gallberry
Kentucky bluegrass Wild strawberry
Aster Phlox
Blackberry Sumac
New Jersey tea Sassafrass

Cover

Cottontails use open areas with dense cover of shrubs and herbaceous vegetation. Dense shrubs, briar patches, and brush piles are used for escape cover. Nests are usually in grass or forb cover. Interspersion of cover types, or small areas in close proximity, is ideal for rabbits.

Cottontails are a food source for many mammalian and avian predators. Cottontails can generally withstand heavy predation if appropriate amounts of food and cover is present.

Nests are dug in the ground and lined with grass and loose fur. Nests are relatively small, about 4" across and 4" deep. The female rabbit, or doe, typically has 2 or 3 litters per season with 3-8 rabbits per litter. After brooding, the nest is abandoned.

Cottontail rabbit nest - Day 11.

Cottontail rabbit nest - Day 11.

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Water

Succulent plants and dew provide the daily requirements for water. Although open water may be readily used, it is not a necessary element of their habitat.

Home Range

The home range of female cottontails is about 20 acres during breeding season and 15 acres in fall and winter. Adult males range up to 100 acres or more. Juveniles cover an average of 9 acres in late summer and up to 15 acres in fall.

Rabbit Management

Tips for Improving Rabbit Habitat

General

  • Create small stands (10 to 20 acres) close to fields, swamps, and streams
  • Thin pine stands frequently (3 to 5 years) to stimulate understory growth
  • Use prescribed burning in pine types during winter months
  • Keep pets (cats and dogs) confined especially during nesting periods

Direct improvements

  • Maintain openings and create brush piles along edges
  • Use a brush mower in abandoned or fallow fields every 2 to 3 years to maintain briar thickets, or alternating treatments that leave strips of continuous food and shrubby cover in close proximity
  • Create "live" brush piles by cutting the base of saplings halfway through and staking the tree top to the ground (cedars, hollys, etc.)
  • “Daylight “ forest roads by removing trees along road edges to stimulate herbaceous plants and brush regrowth

Species That Benefit From Rabbit Management

Numerous game and nongame species benefit from rabbit management practices. Management plans should emphasize the communities that are associated with rabbits, rather than rabbits alone. The following species are common rabbit associates:

  • Northern bobwhite (quail)
  • Field sparrow
  • White-tailed deer
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Gray fox
  • Eastern meadowlark
  • Yellow-breasted chat
  • Indigo bunting
  • Black rat snake
  • Cotton rat
  • Red fox

Authors

Extension Forestry Specialist
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist (Wildlife)
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Wildlife Biologist

Publication date: Feb. 27, 2019
Revised: March 6, 2019

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.