New England Cottontail and Snowshoe Hare
Sylvilagus transitionalis and Lepus americanus
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Maine is home to two rabbit-like species, but only one of them—the New England cottontail (NEC) or cooney—is a true rabbit. The other is the snowshoe hare. Snowshoe hares are larger than cottontails, having a larger body, longer ears, and much longer feet. Probably the most recognizable difference between them is that snowshoe hares turn white during the winter while cottontails remain brown. The snowshoe hare is an abundant game species with a statewide distribution, however the NEC is listed as a State Endangered species and are currently only known to occur in just six towns in Maine: Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Wells, Eliot, York, and Kittery.
If you have recently seen a New England cottontail we want to hear about it!
Both snowshoe hare and New England cottontail need dense ground vegetation for cover from predators. New England cottontail prefer dense deciduous vegetation, whereas snowshoe hare prefer dense conifer growth, but occur in deciduous areas as well. Both species are primarily nocturnal. They spend most of the day resting in dense cover. When approached, hare remain motionless before sprinting away. Like most North American rabbits, New England cottontail also use burrows made by other animals, as they do not make their own. Cottontails also use brush piles, downed trees, and even man-made structures to hide from predators.
From spring to fall, rabbits and hares eat green vegetation such as dandelions, grass, and the new growth on woody plants. The winter diets consist mainly of small woody twigs and bark from small gray birch, red maple, apple, aspen, choke cherry, and black cherry as well as shrubs or vines, including blackberry, willow, black alder and high-bush blueberry.
New England cottontail are 15-17 inches long and weights around 2 pounds. The fur is grayish brown with flecks of black and they have a white tail. Snowshoe hare are significantly larger than cottontails, being 16-20" long, about three pounds, and have longer ears and feet. In summer, snowshoe hares are brown in color with black ear tips and a white tail.
In winter, hares change their color to white, though their ear tips remain black.
Both cottontails and hares are most active during dawn, dusk, and at night. They are uncommonly seen during daylight hours because they largely remain sheltered from predators in thick vegetation. For the best chance of viewing, observers should stake out grassy areas at the edge of thickets in areas known to be occupied.
Cottontails and hares are active year-round and do not hibernate. They may venture from their summer feeding areas in search of mates or may move during the winter to find better cover or food supplies. They use many forms of natural or human-made shelter to hide from predators or inclement weather. In the winter, hares change their color to white, though their ear tips remain black.
Reproduction & Family Structure
The breeding season for hares and rabbits in Maine begins sometime in March and can continue through late summer. Snowshoe hare can have up to four litters a year, with one to nine young per litter. New England cottontail can have up to three litters a year and average of five young per litter. Newborn hare are fully furred, have open eyes, weigh about two and a half ounces (70 grams), and have a brown coat with a small patch of white on the forehead, and a white band on the edge of the ears. They are capable of moving around after one day and normally nurse for 25 to 28 days, except for the last litter of the season which may nurse much longer. They begin to feed on grass and other herbaceous plants after 10 to 12 days. Cottontails on the other hand are born with their eyes shut and are completely dependent on their mother. Females leave their young to go off and feed, but periodically return to nurse the young. The young develop quickly and can leave the nest within two weeks. Male cottontails and hares provide no parental care.
Survival & Threats
Predators of snowshoe hare and New England cottontail come in every shape and size. Hawks, owls, dogs, cats, coyotes, foxes, weasels, mink, fisher, marten, lynx, and bobcats are capable of predating both species. Annual mortality rates of snowshoe hare and New England cottontail are thought to be similar. For juveniles, 75 to 95 percent die each year, while adult mortality ranges from 66 to 81 percent. With such high mortality, it is unusual for wild rabbits or hares to live much more than a year.
In most of the NEC’s range they also must compete with the non-native eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) for limited habitat. The eastern cottontail is the rabbit that most people are familiar with in the Midwest and eastern US because they can occur in a wide variety of habitats, including in heavily developed areas. Eastern cottontails were introduced into parts of New England in the early 1900s to provide additional hunting opportunities and have since spread considerably. Eastern cottontails can have higher survival and reproductive rates than NEC, so once established in an area, eastern cottontails can outcompete and replace NEC.
Management & Conservation
The snowshoe hare is an abundant game species with a statewide distribution. Historically New England cottontails were also a game species (the hunting season was closed in 2004) and ranged as far east as Belfast and as far inland as Porter, Auburn, and Augusta. But, NEC have experienced a drastic decline in Maine and throughout their worldwide range (New England and east of the Hudson River in New York). In Maine, NEC are currently only known to occur in just six towns south of Portland (Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Wells, Eliot, York, and Kittery), and are listed as a State Endangered species (listed in 2007) with an estimated population of less than 300 individuals. Similarly, they are State Endangered in New Hampshire, are extirpated from Vermont, and were nearly extirpated from Rhode Island. The range-wide decline of NEC is primarily due to habitat loss; in particular the loss of old field habitat, shrublands, and young forest. The ideal habitat for New England cottontails is dense shrubby habitat (the kind you would not want to try to walk through) that provides adequate cover for them to hide from avian and terrestrial predators. This kind of habitat is created naturally on the landscape by forest fires, floods, and other natural events. However, humans have intervened in these natural processes to limit them, and as a result few thickets capable of supporting NEC and the other 40+ Species of Greatest Conservation Need that rely on them are created naturally. Timber harvesting can be used to create the needed habitat, but that too is in decline in southern Maine. Today, <3% of the landscape in York and Cumberland counties are in early successional habitats.
MDIFW works collaboratively with many partners within and outside the state. Regionally, MDIFW participates in the New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative by participating in the New England cottontail technical committee. The technical committee consists of representatives from the wildlife agencies of the six states (Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York) within the current range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Management Institute, university researchers, and others to share information and pool resources to benefit the rabbit. The amount of suitable habitat on the landscape is the current limiting factor for NEC populations, so habitat creation and enhancement is the largest aspect of the restoration effort.
MDIFW and our conservation partners actively seek out and provide technical assistance to landowners that have property near our existing NEC populations to conduct habitat management. Management actions include timber harvests, cutting and leaving trees on the ground, periodic mowing of shrubs, planting native shrubs, building brush piles, managing invasive species, and allowing fields to revert to shrubland. To date, we’ve conducted management on hundreds of acres under all types of landownership, including state, federal, municipal, land trust, and privately owned properties. Although NEC are the focal species of this effort, many other wildlife species benefit from these habitat management actions, including at least 42 of Maine’s Species of Greatest Conservation Concern, including American woodcock, eastern towhees, and black racers. For more information on how to manage properties for cottontails, please refer to the Landowners Guide to New England Cottontail Habitat Management (PDF), which is available at newenglandcottontail.org, or contact MDIFW small mammal biologist Cory Stearns (firstname.lastname@example.org or 592-1782).
Another aspect of the NEC recovery effort is a captive breeding and translocation program. Roger Williams Park Zoo (Providence, RI) and Queens Zoo (Queens, NY) breed New England cottontails in their facilities, with the young produced being released into the wilds of Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Additionally, Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge (Newington, NH) has a breeding pen where adult NEC are retained while their young are released. On Patience Island, Rhode Island a breeding colony was established from young produced in the zoos, and now individuals are trapped from the island for release on the mainland. Maine began releasing rabbits in 2017 when 20 NEC were released at Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells. Releases at the Reserve from 2017-19 have established a breeding population that has begun to expand off from the Reserve. A subcommittee (including a MDIFW representative) of the NEC technical committee meet regularly to discuss rabbit allocations, evaluate the captive breeding program, and discuss ways to increase output in the future.
MDIFW participates in a regional NEC monitoring program with the goal of determining if there are any changes in cottontail populations across the region. As part of the monitoring program, sites known to be occupied by NEC (the number varies by state, but all known occupied sites in Maine are included) and a similar number of unoccupied sites are surveyed on a two-year rotation (half the sites are surveyed one year, and the other half the next). Surveys involve walking transects through patches of suitable habitat and collecting fecal pellets. Based on their appearance, pellets of NEC, eastern cottontail, and snowshoe hare can’t be accurately distinguished. So, pellets are submitted to genetic labs to confirm the species. MDIFW also occasionally performs more thorough “abundance” surveys at sites of particular interest (for example, locations where we have released rabbits) including a more detailed genetic analysis that identifies the individual rabbit the pellet came from. As a result, we can estimate abundance and evaluate the genetic diversity of the population. Each winter, MDIFW also surveys areas not included in the regional monitoring program to search for previously unknown populations.
Much of the recovery work on NEC in Maine is accomplished by governmental and non-governmental partners working with MDIFW through Maine's NEC Working Group. In particular, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve have been integral for NEC conservation in Maine.
Are you looking to help the New England Cottontail?
Be on the lookout for NEC! Learn how you can report potential New England cottontail sightings.
For our restoration efforts of New England cottontail to be successful we need willing landowners to manage a portion of their property to provide the shrubland and early successional habitat that they require. The Department and our conservation partners can provide technical assistance for habitat management to benefit cottontails. In some cases, financial assistance may be available. If you’re a landowner in southern York or Cumberland county and are interested in managing your property for cottontails please contact MDIFW Wildlife Biologist Cory Stearns at (207) 592-1782 or email@example.com.
For more information about New England cottontails and habitat management to benefit them visit newenglandcottontail.org.
Living with Wildlife
How to Prevent or Resolve Conflicts with Hares and Rabbits
New England cottontail, because of their low numbers and reclusive habits, do not represent a significant pest problem to landowners at this time. Likewise, snowshoe hare interact little with humans despite their abundance, as they are reluctant to venture into open areas to feed.
People concerned about possible damage to nursery or garden crops may want to take preventative steps.