The New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is a wild rabbit native to New England and Eastern New York with a “vulnerable” conservation status due to a steep decline in its population over the last 50 years. In this post, we’ll explore the New England Cottontail in more depth and explain why this breed is in such a vulnerable position.

Size:15–17 inches
Weight:2 pounds
Lifespan:Less than 2 years
Suitable for:Shrublands, shrub wetlands, young forests
Temperament:Wild, solitary

The New England Cottontail is a very small rabbit with a brownish-gray coat that is darker on the back and a white tail. They’re similar in appearance to the Eastern Cottontail and can be easily mistaken for one, but are smaller, have shorter ears, and often have a black spot between the ears and black fur on the edges of the ears. Furthermore, Eastern Cottontails have paler-colored coats. Female New England Cottontails are bigger than males.

New England Cottontail Breed Characteristics

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The Earliest Records of New England Cottontails in History

The New England Cottontail dates back thousands of years and is the only rabbit native to the New England area. They used to be quite common in the New England area and eastern New York, but the past 50 years have seen the New England Cottontail population dwindle to a mere 13,000 or so rabbits, as biologists estimate.

Today, you can only find these rabbits in a handful of locations in the States—southern New Hampshire, southern Maine, and parts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. The New England Cottontail has lost 85% of the range it once inhabited.

closeup of a new england cottontail
Image Credit: Jaclyn Vernace, Shutterstock

How New England Cottontails Became Vulnerable

Though not currently listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, between 2006 and 2015, the New England Cottontail was under consideration for being placed under the act’s protection due to its vulnerable status. In 2015, the breed was no longer under consideration for listing due to the efforts of conservationists. However, some states, including New Hampshire, list New England Cottontails as state-endangered.

Habitat loss due to land development is one of the reasons why the New England Cottontail population has decreased, though another reason is forests growing too old for New England Cottontails to inhabit. These rabbits are attracted to young forests up to around 20 years old because these are thicker and offer better protection and plenty for the rabbits to eat.

Moreover, to make things even tougher, New England Cottontails are in competition with Eastern Cottontails for resources, which further impacts its population.

In response, conservationists have been setting up habitat projects to grow more young forests and shrubland for New England Cottontails to inhabit. These conservationists hope that with the high reproduction rate of these rabbits and efforts to provide suitable habitats, the New England Cottontail population will increase.

Behavior & Habitat

New England Cottontails are shy, quiet animals that don’t stray far from their thickets. At most, they sometimes move a mile away in the winter months to find somewhere with more food and protection from predators. Cottontail predators include weasels, raccoons, snakes, foxes, and crows.

They tend to make shelter in a wide variety of cavities when necessary, both natural and man-made. Examples include burrows made by other animals, culverts, and thickets.

New England Cottontails are most active overnight and communicate with other rabbits by thumping, grunting, and purring.

Their diet is herbivorous and made up of vegetation, including bark, buds, twigs, and shoots. If given the opportunity, they’ll also eat fruits like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and a variety of vegetables.

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Top 3 Unique Facts About New England Cottontails

1. The Average New England Cottontail Breeds 2–3 Times Per Year

A single litter is made up of, on average, five newborns, and the gestation period is around 28 days. Babies are independent from when they’re about 4 weeks old. This high reproduction rate gives conservationists hope that it will contribute towards boosting the New England Cottontail population.

Profile Portrait of New England Cottontail
Image Credit: Abeselom Zerit, Shutterstock

2. New England Cottontails Only Live for Around 2 Years

The expected lifespan of this wild rabbit is very short, with most only making it to 2–3 years. In comparison, domestic rabbits can live for up to 12 years and beyond in some cases.


3. Various Animals Share Habitat with the New England Cottontail

The young forests that New England Cottontails inhabit are also shared by wood turtles, American woodcocks, golden-winged warblers, bobcats, and white-tailed deer.

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Does a New England Cottontail Make a Good Pet?

Absolutely not—New England Cottontails are wild rabbits and are even legally protected in some areas, including in New Hampshire. This means that it’s illegal to take possession of them.

If you’d like to get a rabbit, you’re best sticking to domestic breeds (Lionheads, Angoras, Rexes, etc.) of which there are plenty. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and make great family companions as long as you’re gentle with them and do proper research into how to care for them.

Rabbits are sensitive and fragile animals, so they’re not suitable matches for young children as “first pets”. Young children should always be closely supervised around the family rabbit or rabbits.

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Conclusion

New England Cottontails are not domestic rabbits—they belong in the wild. These rabbits have had a tough 50 years or so due to various factors causing their population to decline, which has led to conservationist efforts to increase it once again.

If you’re interested in helping preserve the New England Cottontail, you can check out newenglandcottontail.org to find out more about how to support habitat projects.


Featured Image Credit: Julie rubacha, Shutterstock