Here Comes Peter Cottontail

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(Christi Yoder/Longmont Observer)

Cottontail rabbits are as ubiquitous in Longmont as they are in practically every location. Colorado has three species of cottontail rabbits: the mountain cottontail, desert cottontail, and the eastern cottontail. The eastern cottontail is the species seen in Longmont.

Smaller than jackrabbits, cottontails are 14-19 inches long and weigh 2-4 pounds. Females are usually heavier, but the weights between the sexes overlap. The cottontails have a white belly and are either reddish-brown or grayish-brown on their back and sides.

(Christi Yoder/Longmont Observer)

The neck has prominent rust coloration. True to their namesake, they have a fluffy, white tail that resembles a cotton ball. In the winter, their fur appears more grey than brown. Cottontails molt, or shed their fur, twice a year. The first molt begins in April and lasts until July. The second molt occurs late in September until November.

Cottontails have very good eyesight, sense of smell and hearing. They are most active at dawn, dusk, and at night. During the day, they remain undercover unless discovered. When discovered, cottontails flee from predators in a zigzag pattern and are capable of running up to 18 miles per hour.

Cottontails prefer open grassy areas with shrubs nearby for cover. They can be found on farms and urban areas. Cottontails use brush piles, the burrows of other animals, or dens in addition to shrubs for cover. They prefer to be able to graze in open areas with the ability to hide quickly if needed. Feeding early in the morning and late afternoon, cottontails eat grasses and herbs and the occasional garden vegetable. In the wintertime, cottontails eat twigs, bark, and buds.

Cottontail rabbits tend to be territorial. The size of the territory depends on food availability and cover. The average territory of a cottontail is 5-8 acres, and can expand during breeding season. Males have larger territories than females.

(Christi Yoder/Longmont Observer)

Cottontail rabbits have a mating ritual that usually occurs after dark. The male will chase the female until she turns and fights him with her front paws. When the male runs away, the female will chase him. The male then turns and runs past the female, urinating in the process. Females will groom themselves and retreat from the male. When females are receptive, they will jump over the male as he dashes at her.

Males have a hierarchy consisting of dominant and subordinate rabbits which helps prevent fighting between males during the breeding season. Breeding occurs from February to September.

The gestation period for the cottontail rabbits is 25-28 days, and each litter consists of 4-7 young. Cottontails have 2-6 litters per year. The young are born blind and helpless with their eyes opening around day four or five. The young leave the nest around two weeks of age.

(Christi Yoder/Longmont Observer)

The mother actually spends little time caring for her young, nursing them only once or twice a day for about two weeks. They are capable of taking care of themselves at around one month of age, and are sexually mature at two or three months of age. A female adult rabbit is often ready to give birth again as the young are leaving the nest. Interbreeding is prevented in part by littermates becoming intolerant of each other and dispersing away from their birthing area.

Cottontails only live up to three years with the average lifespan being one year. This helps to balance out the high birth rate. They are preyed upon by coyotes, foxes, owls, and hawks. The young fall prey to snakes and weasels. Disease and parasites also take a toll on the population. Cottontails run in a zigzag pattern to escape predators. They may also freeze in place to avoid detection or slink along the ground with their ears flat to their head.

If you want to catch sight of a cottontail, look for areas with “edges.” This means the area has open space for the rabbits to graze, with brush for cover. The best time for spotting them is at dawn or dusk when they are likely to be feeding.

(Christi Yoder/Longmont Observer)
The Longmont Weekly Wild is a weekly column about all things wildlife and wild in Longmont. You can find previous articles under the Lifestyle section.