Cross Timbers Wildlife News - Jim Dillard
May 2003

Jim Dillard is a Wildlife Biologist for Texas Parks & Wildlife. He writes from Mineral Wells TX.

Cottontail Cousins

When I was a kid, rabbit was pretty common table fare at our house, along with squirrel, dove, quail and catfish caught from the creek east of town. Generous helpings of fresh green beans, black-eyed peas, onions, potatoes, okra, and canned peaches from the garden made those wild game delicacies taste even better. Although cottontails were the most common rabbit my dad and I brought home, we'd occasionally bag a nice plump swamp rabbit. They always seemed to taste a little better, especially cooked in a big pot with dumplings. I suspect the added touch of mother's hand had a lot to do with it - she could make an old shoe taste good.

Rabbit hunting was a common pastime down in the Blacklands of Central Texas where I grew up. There weren't any white-tailed deer or turkey, so hunting rabbits along the meandering creeks, weedy fence lines, and cotton and corn field edges was the next best thing. Rabbits were considered pests and most farmers would let you hunt as long as you asked first and hunted with a shotgun. I remember riding on the school bus with a country friend of mine to spend the weekend rabbit hunting at his farm and was allowed to take my shotgun with me, as long as the bus driver kept it under his seat until we got there. Don't think you could do that today, but those were simpler times and nobody gave it a second thought.

There are 18 species of rabbits and hares found in the U.S. and Canada in the Family Leporidae, including the eastern cottontail and swamp rabbit of the genus Sylvilagus found here in North Texas. Member of this family can be distinguished from rodents by the tandem arrangement of their front teeth with a set of little peg-like teeth located directly behind each of the large incisors. Getting a rabbit to "open wide" just to prove it's not a rat may be a challenge, but never the less, they're there, trust me.

The eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is one of the most widely distributed mammal species in Texas and is found throughout the eastern three-fourths of the state, including here in Cross Timbers Country. Open brush and woodlands, field edges, brushy fence lines and roadsides, and dry creek bottoms are where you're most likely to find them. Another cottontail species, the desert cottontail (S. audubonii), inhabits upland county in the western half of Texas. Where ranges overlap, the desert cousin can best be identified by slightly longer ears, otherwise they'll taste about the same. Swamp rabbits (S. aquaticus) are found in the eastern one-third of Texas and are the largest of the "cottontails." They prefer to slosh around in wet bottomlands of creeks and rivers where there's briars and brambles or in coastal marshes. I've seen a few here in North Texas along creek and river bottoms, but they're not common.

Cottontails have grayish brown fur, grizzled with black. The back of their neck, legs and underparts are rusty-reddish, and their feet are whitish. Ears are about 50-60% as long as their hind feet. The underside of the tail is white, giving them that familiar "cottontail bounce" when on the run. They'll weigh 2-4 pounds, so it takes a couple of them to fill a skillet. The larger swamp rabbit is similar in coloration but has coarse short fur and their front legs and top of hind feet are a cinnamon-reddish color. Dense fur helps keep their skin dry so they have no qualms about swimming across creeks or rivers. A full-grown swamp rabbit weighs 3 ½-6 pounds and will make one big pot of stew.

Grasses and forbs (weeds or wildflowers) make up the bulk of a cottontail's diet, but when those items are scarce, bark and twigs of shrubs and small trees will do. Nibbling on Mr. McGregor's garden goodies is also an option. They also have the disgusting habit of recycling their own fresh green fecal pellets, so not much goes to waste. Swamp rabbits prefer green and young woody plants, tree seedlings, sedges, grasses, cane, greenbriar and field crops. Piles of their pellets left on stumps, rotting logs or other elevated places are a sure sign you're in swamp rabbit territory.

Cottontail courtship involves a lot of jumping and leaping gyrations. An average of 4-5 young is born from February to September after the 28-29 day gestation period. Young are born in a scratched out 5 by 7 inch depression. It's lined with grass and fur picked from the doe's breast and capped over with a layer of grass. At birth, they're born naked and with eyes closed (altricial). They're nursed at dawn and dusk and require a couple of weeks of maternal care before doing the bunny hop. Females waste no time and usually mate again with a few hours and they'll produce another 3-4 litters by fall. It's estimated that if no young were lost, a single pair of cottontails, together with their offspring, could raise 350,000 young over a 5-year period. Fortunately, few live more than one year or we'd be wading knee deep in wascal wabbits.

Swamp rabbits are born with fur, and their eyes open 2-3 days after birth. Nests are usually located in old logs or stumps but may be a surface nest of vegetation lined with fur. Peak breeding season is during the February and March green-up but may extend to September. After 39-40 days of gestation, 2-3 young are born. Two or more litters are likely.

Cottontails and swamp rabbits are two of the most hunted animals in the United States and a very important link in the food natural chain for many avian and mammalian predators. Swamp rabbits also have to deal with alligators. Hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, opossums, weasels, bobcats, badgers and domestic cats and dogs take their annual toll. Last year, I photographed a rattlesnake in the process of swallowing a cottontail it had just killed.

In Texas, they're classified as nongame animals and may be hunted year round; no closed season or bag limit, but a hunting license is required. During 2001, Texas hunters took an estimated 175,000. If my math is correct, the odds are still in their favor as long as there's quality habitat around that provides them food and cover. And if they continue to "breed like rabbits", their ubiquity is assured.

Until next time - I'll see you down the road and God Bless America!

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