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Bunnies on the Brink

February 2, 2009

In 1960, New England cottontails hopped through the forests of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, eastern New York, southern Vermont and southern Maine as happily as Little Bunny Foo Foo (without bopping any field mice on the head). Today, the bunnies occupy only 24% of their historic range. Scientists estimate that only 100 New England cottontails—NECs for short—live in New Hampshire and only 300 live in Maine. No one’s seen an NEC in Vermont since 1971.

What happened? Did the good fairy turn them all into goons?

No. If you were paying attention, you’d recall that the ‘60s-era NECs refrained from bopping field mice on the head. Therefore, the good fairy had no reason to turn them into goons.

Like magic, the bunnies just disappeared (Poof!), except that it wasn’t magical at all. NECs are very particular about their habitat, and when they can’t find a place to live, well, they don’t end up living for long. NECs like early successional forests—what we often call scrub or thickets—where lots of scrawny trees grow side-by-side. These forests provide plenty of hiding spots—and food—for the rabbits. Biologists have found that NECs are happiest (and more likely to survive) when they have 12 or more acres of brambly forest in which to roam, but that’s rare these days. The young forests of twenty years ago have grown into bunny-unfriendly mature forests with open areas and thick trees. What scant scrub forest remains exists only in fragments separated by roads and buildings, which aren’t particularly rabbit friendly either.

It’s tough to survive without a decent place to live, but when home and food are one and the same, homelessness takes on a whole new level of screwage. Since most of the food NECs like to eat—bark and twigs in winter and grasses and plant leaves during the rest of the year—are found in or near their preferred (now nearly non-existent) habitat, the rabbits are probably pretty hungry. Plus, white-tailed deer, a rather abundant species in the Northeast, munch on many of the same plants the bunnies like. And, many of the plants NECs used to eat have been replaced with invasive exotic plants like multiflora rose, honeysuckle bush and autumn olive, which may not be as yummy as the native species they displaced.

No food + no shelter = no bunnies? It’s not quite so simple. There’s a bit of Darwinism in the equation too. Scientists have found that hungry NECs in a food-less, but otherwise decent habitat will choose to stay put and starve rather than abandon the shelter to seek food. Eastern cottontails—another species of cottontail found in the northeast—will choose food over shelter.

That’s because eastern cottontails are better bunnies. Eastern cottontails aren’t only smarter than NECs. They’re also more flexible in their habitat needs—they’re perfectly happy chomping on dandelions in suburban lawns, something a skittish NEC would never do—and they’re much better at spotting predators than NECs. (That’s right; NECs aren’t very good at seeing predators, which may be why they prefer to hide in brambles.) But these better bunnies—the smarter, keener eyed, almost identical* rabbits—aren’t supposed to be here. Eastern cottontails are native to areas west of the Hudson River, but hunting clubs brought thousands of them to New England in the 1920s. 

Alas, New England cottontails are on the brink of extinction. They’re already listed as endangered in New Hampshire and Maine and they’re up for federal endangered species status. But, c’mon, they’re rabbits. Everyone knows what rabbits do. NECs do it too—producing litters of 3-8 kits** three times a year—but to DO it, they need the right location …and that brings us back to the homelessness issue.


*The only way scientists can tell eastern cottontails and New England cottontails apart is by testing the DNA in their poop.

**If you get nothing else out of this fascinating post, at least you’ll know that a baby bunny is called a kit.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy Enos permalink
    February 3, 2009 1:50 am

    I never knew fecal bunny DNA could be so important!

  2. Kerri permalink
    March 4, 2009 9:06 pm

    Quite possibly the best footnotes ever.

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