Monday, June 2, 2014

Up the Rabbit Hole

After the eastern gray squirrel, the eastern cottontail rabbit, Sylvilagus floridanus is perhaps the most ubiquitous and recognizable wild denizen of modern suburbia. And it is surely among the most vulnerable and persecuted as well. In fact, this little rabbit is so well loved by predators of every ilk, it might just top the list of carnivore super-foods. Most sources indicate that the average life span of a cottontail is well under three years, and less than 20 percent survive their first year.

The list of cottontail predators reads like a veritable who's who of wild carnivores and omnivores, including the usual suspects like foxes, coyotes, owls, hawks, bobcats and snakes, but also counting such oddities as weasels, skunks, opossums, raccoons and even some species of squirrel, not to mention humans and domesticated dogs and cats.

With all this killing and eating going on, one might wonder how there are any cottontails left at all. While there are sometimes dramatic fluctuations in rabbit populations, they are a stable and vitally important part of the ecosystem throughout their native range. Young rabbits are on their own within a month or so, and become sexually mature within a few months. Females birth multiple litters per year, averaging around four, and each litter averages around five kits, or young rabbits. Some quick math will give you an idea of why all this rabbit-eating is so important to a balanced ecosystem. Without it, eastern cottontails might just rule the world!

We encountered this young cottontail on a recent evening, just before dusk, munching clover in the shadow of a retaining wall adjacent to the athletic complex at a local school. 

The eastern cottontail's drab coat and propensity for stillness, even in the face of very close approach by humans, both serve it well in avoiding predators. In this photo, the source of the rabbit's name is apparent as well, with the edges of its cottony white tail just visible in spite of its crouching position. The cottontail flashes when the rabbit flees, alerting others nearby to danger, and perhaps distracting a pursuing predator just enough to make it miss its zig-zagging target.

In spite of its short life span and heavy predation, the cottontail enjoys quite a reputation in popular lore for being a clever and ingenious survivor. 
Whether in the Southern folk tradition of Brer Rabbit versus Brer Fox, or Bugs Bunny versus Elmer J. Fudd , we're true believers and diehard fans of the wily little cottontail.

And tonight's encounter does nothing to diminish our faith; a rabbit hole disguised as a corrugated plastic drain pipe... Go figure!

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