Article by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
New England cottontails and their plight.
The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is a species of cottontail rabbit represented by fragmented populations in areas of New England, specifically from southern Maine to southern New York. This species bears a close resemblance (so close you must analyze their fecal droppings to tell the difference) to the Eastern cottontail. It is important to know that the Eastern cottontail has done the better job of adapting to its often harsh environment; the New England cottontail, for instance, retains its brown color during the winter, the better to be seen and enjoyed by hungry coyotes and owls. This is but one of the several pressing reasons which together may presage the end of these uniquely New England residents. Here is the full litany of the woes which assail them…
Item: Its population is in sharp decline. As recently as 1960, New England cottontails were found east of the Hudson River in New York, across all of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, north to southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and into southern Maine.
Today, this rabbit’s range has shrunk by more than 75 percent. Its numbers are so greatly diminished that it cannot be found in Vermont and has been reduced, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to only five smaller populations throughout its historic range.
Item: Drastically reduced habitat. The New England cottontail prefers early successional forests, often called thickets, with thick and tangled vegetation. These young forests are generally less than 25 years old. Once large trees grow in a stand, the shrub layer tends to shrink, creating habitat that the cottontails no longer find suitable.
New England cottontails need a certain amount of territory to flourish. They do best on patches of habitat larger than 12 acres. Rabbits on smaller patches of habitat deplete their food supply sooner and have to eat lower quality food, or may need to search for food in areas where there is more risk (especially in winter) of being killed by a predator.
Item: The introduction of exotic invasive species, such as multiflora rose, honeysuckle bush and autumn olive, in the last century has changed the type of habitat available to New England cottontails. These plants form the major component of many patches where cottontails can be found, and the rabbits don’t like them at all.
Item: Today white-tailed deer are found in extremely high densities throughout the range of New England cottontails. Deer not only eat many of the same plants but may affect the density of many understory plants that provide thicket habitat for New England cottontails.
And so the woes pile up, one on top of the other until catastrophe