Index of Species Information
WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sylvilagus floridanus
WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sylvilagus floridanus
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION :
Sullivan, Janet. 1995. Sylvilagus floridanus. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ .
COMMON NAMES :
The currently accepted scientific name for eastern cottontail is
Sylvilagus floridanus (J. A. Allen) [9,10,28,48]. Chapman and others
 listed 35 accepted subspecies, the majority of which occur in
Mexico. It has been remarked that extensive transplantation of eastern
cottontails throughout this century has rendered subspecific
designations somewhat meaningless, particularly in eastern North
America. The type subspecies locale is Florida .
FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS :
No special status
OTHER STATUS :
Information on state- and province-level protection status of animals in the
United States and Canada is available at NatureServe, although recent
changes in status may not be included.
WILDLIFE DISTRIBUTION AND OCCURRENCE
WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sylvilagus floridanus
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION :
The eastern cottontail range extends from the Great Plains and
throughout the eastern United States and extreme southern Canada south
through eastern Mexico and central America and west into parts of Texas,
New Mexico, and Arizona [17,27]. Transplanted eastern cottontails have
established large breeding populations in Washington and Oregon .
The range of eastern cottontail overlaps those of six other cottontails
(Sylvilagus spp.) and six species of hares (Lepus spp.) .
FRES10 White-red-jack pine
FRES12 Longleaf-slash pine
FRES13 Loblolly-shortleaf pine
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES28 Western hardwoods
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES32 Texas savanna
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES38 Plains grasslands
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS :
5 Columbia Plateau
7 Lower Basin and Range
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS :
K005 Mixed conifer forest
K010 Ponderosa shrub forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K019 Arizona pine forest
K022 Great Basin pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodland
K027 Mesquite bosque
K032 Transition between K031 and K037
K045 Ceniza shrub
K058 Grama-tobosa shrubsteppe
K059 Trans-Pecos shrub savanna
K060 Mesquite savanna
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K076 Blackland prairie
K077 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
K081 Oak savanna
K083 Cedar glades
K086 Juniper-oak savanna
K088 Fayette prairie
K093 Great Lakes spruce-fir forest
K094 Conifer bog
K095 Great Lakes pine forest
K096 Northeastern spruce-fir forest
K097 Southeastern spruce-fir forest
K099 Maple-basswood forest
K102 Beech-maple forest
K103 Mixed mesophytic forest
K104 Appalachian oak forest
K107 Northern hardwoods-fir forest
K108 Northern hardwoods-spruce forest
K110 Northeastern oak-pine forest
K111 Oak-hickory-pine forest
K112 Southern mixed forest
K113 Southern floodplain forest
K115 Sand pine scrub
SAF COVER TYPES :
1 Jack pine
14 Northern pin oak
15 Red pine
17 Pin cherry
18 Paper birch
19 Gray birch-red maple
20 White pine-northern red oak-red maple
21 Eastern white pine
22 White pine-hemlock
23 Eastern hemlock
24 Hemlock-yellow birch
25 Sugar maple-beech-yellow birch
26 Sugar maple-basswood
27 Sugar maple
28 Black cherry-maple
35 Paper birch-red spruce-balsam fir
40 Post oak-blackjack oak
42 Bur oak
43 Bear oak
44 Chestnut oak
45 Pitch pine
46 Eastern redcedar
50 Black locust
51 White pine-chestnut oak
52 White oak-black oak-northern red oak
53 White oak
55 Northern red oak
58 Yellow-poplar-eastern hemlock
59 Yellow-poplar-white oak-northern red oak
60 Beech-sugar maple
61 River birch-sycamore
62 Silver maple-American elm
67 Mohrs (shin) oak
69 Sand pine
70 Longleaf pine
71 Longleaf pine-scrub oak
72 Southern scrub oak
74 Cabbage palmetto
75 Shortleaf pine
76 Shortleaf pine-oak
80 Loblolly pine-shortleaf pine
81 Loblolly pine
82 Loblolly pine-hardwood
83 Longleaf pine-slash pine
84 Slash pine
88 Willow oak-water oak-diamondleaf oak
89 Live oak
97 Atlantic white-cedar
110 Black oak
111 South Florida slash pine
220 Rocky Mountain juniper
238 Western juniper
237 Interior ponderosa pine
240 Arizona cypress
241 Western live oak
SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES :
107 Western juniper/big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass
109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
203 Riparian woodland
211 Creosotebush scrub
409 Tall forb
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
413 Gambel oak
504 Juniper-pinyon pine woodland
505 Grama-tobosa shrub
509 Transition between oak-juniper woodland and mahogany-oak association
731 Cross timbers-Oklahoma
732 Cross timbers-Texas (little bluestem-post oak)
804 Tall fescue
810 Longleaf pine-turkey oak hills
811 South Florida flatwoods
812 North Florida flatwoods
813 Cutthroat seeps
814 Cabbage palm flatwoods
815 Upland hardwood hammocks
816 Cabbage palm hammocks
817 Oak hammocks
820 Everglades flatwoods
PLANT COMMUNITIES :
The eastern cottontail uses the broadest range of habitats of any
cottontail (Sylvilagus spp.) . Eastern cottontails typically occupy
fields, farms, and woodlands. Historically eastern cottontails were
associated with natural glades and woodlands, prairies, swamps, deserts,
hardwood forests, temperate rainforests, and boreal forests [10,48].
In New York eastern cottontails occur in pitch pine (Pinus rigida)-white
oak (Quercus alba)-scarlet oak (Q. coccinea)-black oak (Q. velutina)
woodlands with black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and lowbush
blueberry (Vaccinium vacillans) in the understory .
Eastern cottontails preferred prairie-eastern redcedar (Juniperus
virginiana) and blackjack oak (Q. marilandica)-post oak (Q.
stellata)-prairie ecotone habitats over other types in the Oklahoma
Cross Timbers. Mature hardwood overstory and mixed-brush habitats were
avoided . In central Arizona eastern cottontails are present in
ponderosa pine (P. ponderoas)-Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)-white
fir (Abies concolor) communities, with alligator juniper (Juniperus
deppeana) and Gambel oak (Q. gambelii) .
In Texas eastern cottontails occur in the Big Bend area in communities
dominated by creosotebush (Larrea tridentata), prickly pear (Opuntia
spp.), tarbush (Flourensia cernua), mesquites (Prosopis spp.), and
ocotillo (Fouqueria splendens) .
Eastern cottontails are present in the Great Dismal Swamp, North
Carolina, in mixed hardwood forests dominated by red maple (Acer
rubrum), black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), oaks (Quercus spp.), slash pine
(Pinus elliottii), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua); and in swamps
dominated by baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) and water tupelo (Nyssa
aquatica), or Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) .
In Alabama eastern cottontails are found in woodlands dominated by
shortleaf pine (P. echinata), southern red oak (Quercus falcata),
sweetgum, yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and other oaks and
hickories (Carya spp.). Understory species include broomsedge
(Andropogon virginicus), panicums (Panicum spp.), other grasses,
sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and seedlings of overstory trees.
Eastern cottontails are also found in fields including alfalfa (Medicago
sativa), bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum), white clover (Trifolium incana),
and dallisgrass (Paspalus dilatatum) .
Southwestern ponderosa pine forest: Cottontails including eastern
cottontail occur in minor populations in southwestern ponderosa pine
forests; this scarcity may be due to lack of surface cover .
BIOLOGICAL DATA AND HABITAT REQUIREMENTS
WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sylvilagus floridanus
TIMING OF MAJOR LIFE HISTORY EVENTS :
Diurnal Activity: Eastern cottontails are crepuscular to nocturnal
feeders; although they usually spend most of the daylight hours resting
in shallow depressions under vegetative cover or other shelter; they
can be seen at any time of day [17,48]. Eastern cottontails are most
active when visibility is limited, such as rainy or foggy nights .
Eastern cottontails usually move only short distances, and they may
remain sitting very still for up to 15 minutes at a time .
Eastern cottontails are active year-round .
Breeding Season: The onset of breeding varies between populations and
within populations from year to year. The eastern cottontail breeding
season begins later with higher latitudes and elevations. Temperature
rather than diet has been suggested as a primary factor controlling
onset of breeding; many studies correlate severe weather with delays in
the onset of breeding . In New England breeding occurs from March
to September . In New York the breeding season occurs from February
to September, in Connecticut from mid-March to mid-September. In
Alabama the breeding season begins in January. In Georgia the breeding
season lasts 9 months and in Texas breeding occurs year-round [10,48].
Populations in western Oregon breed from late January to early September
. Mating is promiscuous .
Gestation and Development of Young: The nest is a slanting hole dug in
soft soil and lined with vegetation and fur. The average measurements
are: length 7.09 inches (18.03 cm), width 4.9 inches (12.57 cm), and
depth 4.71 inches (11.94 cm) . The average period of gestation is
28 days, ranging from 25 to 35 days . Eastern cottontail young are
born with a very fine coat of hair and are blind. Their eyes begin to
open by 4 to 7 days. Young begin to move out of the nest for short
trips by 12 to 16 days and are completely weaned and independent by 4
to 5 weeks [9,48,63]. Litters disperse at about 7 weeks . Females
do not stay in the nest with the young but return to the opening of the
nest to nurse, usually twice a day [48,63].
Reproductive Potential: Reproductive maturity occurs at about 2 to 3
months of age. A majority of females first breed the spring following
birth ; but 10 to 36 percent of females breed as juveniles (i.e.,
summer of the year they were born) . A typical litter in New
England is four or five young, ranging from three to eight . In
Maryland the average litter size is 5.01 young, and ranges from 1 to 12.
In the South female eastern cottontails have more litters per year (up
to 7) but fewer young per litter [10,48]. In New England female eastern
cottontails have three or four litters per year . The annual
productivity of females may be as high as 35 young . Mammalian life
tables were compiled by Millar and Zammuto  and include eastern
cottontail data. Wainright  reviewed the literature on eastern
Mortality/Survivorship: In Kansas the largest cause of mortality of
radiotracked eastern cottontails was predation (43%), followed by
research mortalities (19%), and tularemia (18%) . A major cause of
eastern cottontail mortality is collision with automobiles. In Missouri
it was estimated that 10 eastern cottontails are killed annually per
mile of road. The peak period of highway mortality is in spring (March
through May); roadside vegetation greens up before adjacent fields and
is highly attractive to eastern cottontails .
Annual adult survival is estimated at 20 percent. Average longevity is
15 months in the wild; the longest lived wild individual on record was 5
years old. Captive eastern cottontails have lived to at least 9 years
of age .
Diseases and Pests: Eastern cottontails are hosts to fleas, ticks, lice,
cestodes, nematodes, trematodes, gray flesh fly larvae, botfly larvae,
tularemia, shopes fibroma, torticollis, and streptothricosis cutaneous
. Further summary of diseases and pests is available .
PREFERRED HABITAT :
Optimal eastern cottontail habitat includes open grassy areas,
clearings, and old fields supporting abundant green grasses and herbs,
with shrubs in the area or edges for cover . The essential
components of eastern cottontail habitat are an abundance of
well-distributed escape cover (dense shrubs) interspersed with more open
foraging areas such as grasslands and pastures . Habitat parameters
important for eastern cottontails in ponderosa pine, mixed species, and
pinyon (Pinus spp.)-juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodlands include woody
debris, herbaceous and shrubby understories, and patchiness .
Typically eastern cottontails occupy habitats in and around farms
including fields, pastures, open woods, thickets associated with
fencerows, wooded thickets, forest edges, and suburban areas with
adequate food and cover. They are also found in swamps and marshes and
usually avoid dense woods [17,27]. They are seldom found in deep woods
In Maryland eastern cottontails use forest edges and strip vegetation;
rose (usually multiflora rose [Rosa multiflora]) hedgerows are most
heavily used . In Ohio preferred habitats include patches of
briars, vine entanglements, brush piles, and small conifers .
In Michigan abandoned farmlands in various stages of succession were
assessed for eastern cottontail habitat. Eastern cottontails were
present in all stages, but were most abundant from the fourth to the
sixth years after the last crop. Most use occurred in grass/perennials
and mixed herbaceous perennials. Hayfields were preferred as nesting
sites. Eastern cottontail numbers decreased through succession as
tolerant trees and canopy cover increased and shrubby ground cover
In fragmented farmland habitats in southern Minnesota eastern cottontail
use is associated with dense woody vegetation and artificial cover
(brush piles), particularly in shelterbelts, strip vegetation
(uncultivated areas between fields), fencerows, and roadsides .
In western South Dakota eastern cottontails are associated with
black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colonies due to the
presence of higher vegetative diversity around black-tailed prairie dog
colonies than in the surrounding prairie .
In Colorado cottontails, including eastern cottontail, were present in
greater numbers in ungrazed bottomlands than on grazed areas. Within
the grazed areas eastern cottontails were present only where shrubs had
been moderately (instead of heavily) browsed .
In the Southeast eastern cottontails were most abundant in cultivated
areas, broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) fields, and pine-hardwoods .
Home Range: The eastern cottontail home range is roughly circular in
uniform habitats. Eastern cottontails typically inhabit one home range
throughout their lifetime, but home range shifts in response to
vegetation changes and weather are common . In New England eastern
cottontail home ranges average 1.4 acres (0.57 ha) for adult males and
1.2 acres (0.48 ha) for adult females  but vary in size from 0.5
acre to 40 acres (0.2-16.2 ha), depending on season, habitat quality,
and individual . The largest ranges are occupied by adult males
during the breeding season. In southwestern Wisconsin adult male home
ranges averaged 6.9 acres (2.8 ha) in spring, increased to 10 acres (4.0
ha) in early summer, and decreased to 3.7 acres (1.5 ha) by late summer
. Daily activity is usually restricted to 10 to 20 percent of the
overall home range .
In southeastern Wisconsin home ranges of males overlapped by up to 50
percent, but female home ranges did not overlap by more than 25 percent
and actual defense of range by females occurred only in the immediate
area of the nest. Males fight each other to establish dominance
hierarchy and mating priority .
Population Density: Local concentrations of up to eight eastern
cottontails per acre (20/ha) have been recorded, but densities are
usually lower . In Kansas peak population density was 2.59 rabbits
per acre (6.4/ha) . Density is regulated by mortality and dispersal
COVER REQUIREMENTS :
Eastern cottontails forage in open areas and use brush piles, stone
walls with shrubs around them, herbaceous and shrubby plants, and
burrows or dens for escape cover, shelter, and resting cover .
Woody cover is extremely important for the survival and abundance of
eastern cottontails . Eastern cottontails do not dig their own dens
(other than nest holes) but use burrows dug by other species . In
winter when deciduous plants are bare eastern cottontails forage in less
secure cover and travel greater distances . Eastern cottontails
probably use woody cover more during the winter, particularly in areas
where cover is provided by herbaceous vegetation in summer . In
Florida slash pine flatwoods, eastern cottontails use low saw-palmetto
(Serenoa repens) patches for cover within grassy areas .
Most nest holes are constructed in grasslands (including hayfields) .
The nest is concealed in grasses or weeds. Nests are also constructed
in thickets, orchards, and scrubby woods . In southeastern Illinois
tallgrass prairie, eastern cottontail nests were more common in
undisturbed prairie grasses than in high-mowed or hayed plots . In
Iowa most nests were within 70 yards (64.2 m) of brush cover in
herbaceous vegetation at least 4.0 inches (10.2 cm) tall. Nests in
hayfields were in vegetation less than 7.8 inches (20.0 cm ) tall .
Average depth of nest holes is 4.7 inches (120 mm), average width 5
inches (126 mm), and average length 7 inches (180 mm). The nest is
lined with grass and fur [9,48].
FOOD HABITS :
The diet of eastern cottontails is varied and largely dependent on
availability. Eastern cottontails eat vegetation almost exclusively;
arthropods have occasionally been found in pellets . Some studies
list as many as 70 , 100 , or 145 plant species  in local
diets. Food items include bark, twigs, leaves, fruit, buds, flowers,
grass seeds, sedge fruits, and rush seeds. Numerous studies of local
eastern cottontail diet are summarized by Chapman and others . There
is a preference for small material: branches, twigs, and stems up to
0.25 inch (0.6 cm) . Leporids including eastern cottontails are
coprophagus, producing two types of fecal pellets one of which is
consumed. The redigestion of pellets greatly increases the nutritional
value of dietary items [9,17,48].
Summer Diet: Eastern cottontails consume tender green herbaceous
vegetation when it is available. In many areas Kentucky bluegrass (Poa
pratense) and Canada bluegrass (P. compressa) are important dietary
components [10,39]. Other favored species include clovers (Trifolium
spp.) and crabgrasses (Digitaria spp.) . In Connecticut important
summer foods include clovers, alfalfa, timothy (Phleum pratense),
bluegrasses (Poa spp.), quackgrass (Elytrigia repens), crabgrasses,
redtop (Agrostis alba), ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya), goldenrods
(Solidago spp.), plantains (Plantago spp.), chickweed (Stellaria media),
and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Eastern cottontails also consume
many domestic crops .
Fall, Winter, and Early Spring Diet: During the dormant season, or when
green vegetation is covered with snow, eastern cottontails consume
twigs, buds, and bark of woody vegetation . In Connecticut
important winter foods include gray birch (Betula populifolia), red
maple, and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) .
Major predators of eastern cottontail include domestic dog (Canis
familiaris), foxes (Vulpes and Urocyon spp.), coyote (C. latrans),
bobcat (Lynx rufus), domestic cat (Felis cattus), weasels (Mustela
spp.), raccoon (Procyon lotor), mink (M. vison), great horned owl (Bubo
virginianus), barred owl (Strix varia), hawks (Falconiformes), corvids
(Corvidae), and snakes [26,27]. In the Southwest cottontails including
eastern cottontail comprise 7 to 25 percent of the diets of northern
goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) . In Texas eastern cottontails are
preyed on by coyotes more heavily in early spring and in fall than in
summer or winter . In southwestern North Dakota cottontails (both
eastern and desert cottontail [Sylvilagus auduboni]) were major prey
items in the diets of bobcats .
Predators that take nestlings include raccoon, badger (Taxidea taxus),
skunks (Mephitis and Spilogale spp.), and Virginia opossum (Didelphis
marsupialis) . In central Missouri eastern cottontails comprised
the majority of biomass in the diet of red-tailed hawks (Buteo
jamaicensis) during the nesting season . In Pennsylvania the chief
predator of eastern cottontails is the great horned owl .
Juvenile eastern cottontails are rare in the diet of short-eared owls
(Asio flammeus) . Trace amounts of eastern cottontail remains have
been detected in black bear (Ursus americanus) scat .
MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS :
The eastern cottontail has major economic importance as a game species
for both meat and fur production; it is also of economic importance as
prey of furbearers (bobcat, coyote, foxes etc.) [25,34]. Since eastern
populations remain relatively stable they are an important prey item for
the endangered red wolf (Canis rufus) breeding population at Gulf
Islands National Seashore . Eastern cottontails are potential prey
for the endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), particularly
in prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) colonies . The eastern cottontail is
common in suburban to urban areas and is an economically important pest
there as well as in in farmlands and tree plantations [26,48].
Transplantation of eastern cottontail populations has had impacts on
other species; in New England the decline of the New England cottontail
(Sylvilagus transitionalis) has been attributed at least in part to
eastern cottontail introduction [9,48].
Population Status: In Illinois eastern cottontails increased in
abundance with agricultural development in the early postsettlement
period . However, more recent changes in intensity of agriculture,
which have reduced the amount and size of areas of suitable habitat,
have contributed to a decline in eastern cottontail populations [1,25].
Reduced eastern cottontail numbers are associated with the decrease in
the number and size of individual farms and the amount of land devoted
to hay and oats because of increased emphasis on more valuable grains
. Other changes include reductions in grasslands, reductions in
stream and river bottom forests and woodlots, and plowing of weedy and
brushy pastures [1,25]. In Illnois population indices for the period
1956 to 1978 indicate declines of at least 70 percent statewide, and 90
to 95 percent in intensively farmed areas . In Ohio eastern
cottontail abundance declined by 70 percent from 1956 to 1983 in spite
of efforts to maintain populations . In Kentucky conversion of
pastures to tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) has reduced eastern
cottontail reproductive rates because of the presence of an unpalatable
endophytic fungus (Acremonium ceonophialum) associated with the tall
fescue . Boyd  reviewed causes of eastern cottontail population
Pest Control: Lethal control methods (trapping, shooting) are expensive
and effective only in the short term. Nonlethal control methods are
also expensive but often effective. Exclosures and repellants are the
most effective methods to reduce damage by rabbits. Silvicultural
practices that reduce cover in and around plantations, particularly on
roadsides, are the most effective way to reduce rabbit damage .
Habitat Management: In most areas eastern cottontail habitat can be
improved by the interspersion of old fields with briar thickets and
creation of edge by breaking up large areas of monocultures. Artificial
cover in the form of brush piles 13 to 20 feet (4-6 m) in diameter and 3
to 7 feet (1-2 m) high is effective for up to 5 years. Shrub plantings
should include thorny species that maintain a low, dense cover
resembling multiflora rose (multiflora rose is not recommended because
of its propensity to spread into other areas ). Prescribed fire can
be used to improve cover (see FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT) [1,9]. Any
activity that reduces cover, such as burning followed by grazing,
decreases habitat quality [1,10].
In southwestern ponderosa pine forests cottontail numbers can be
increased by management that encourages dense natural or artificial
regeneration, by the retention of piled slash, or by encouragement of
herbaceous and shrub growth after timber harvest [12,13]. In central
Louisiana eastern cottontails were present in longleaf pine (Pinus
palustris)-slash pine woodlands in slightly greater numbers in
regeneration stands than in sapling, sawtimber, or pole-size stands
. In northern Georgia, forage biomass was greater on all
site-preparation treatments after timber harvest than on unlogged
control sites; harvested sites are potentially better habitat for
eastern cottontails, but eastern cottontails were not plentiful enough
on the site to distinguish between treatments . Increased
cottontail numbers have been noted where clearcuts have increased cover
in the form of slash piles, increased production of herbaceous plants,
and Gambel oak sprouts. Numbers also increased in areas with dense
ponderosa pine reproduction around 4 to 5 feet tall (1.2-1.5 m) .
Only agricultural land that was within 300 feet (91.4 m) of a woodlot
was used by eastern cottontails in southwestern Wisconsin .
Food availability is typically not the most important consideration in
eastern cottontail management since it is not usually considered a
limiting factor. Eastern cottontails select suitable cover over
abundant food supply if cover and abundant food are not found together
. Korschgen  asserted that placement of preferred food plants
near permanent cover improves eastern cottontail habitat and
FIRE EFFECTS AND USE
WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sylvilagus floridanus
DIRECT FIRE EFFECTS ON ANIMALS :
Taylor  reviewed twelve studies of fire effects on small mammals and
found little evidence of direct mortality. Small mammals are often able
to escape fire by retreating to underground burrows . Komarek 
reported that there was no evidence of direct mortality or even singed
fur of either juvenile or adult eastern cottontails in 225 prescribed
fires (from late fall to early spring) in southern pine forests. Small
mammals including eastern cottontails have been collected from unburned
areas of cover within burned plots [37,56]. In Alabama no
radio-collared eastern cottontails were killed by either severe or
low-severity prescribed fire, and no eastern cottontail deaths were
recorded in the immediate postfire period (12 days) in pine-hardwood
woodlands and adjacent pastures . In southeastern Illinois
tallgrass prairie, eastern cottontails were observed escaping winter
prescribed fire . In Oklahoma a hot fire in prairie woodlands
(August) killed a number of box turtles (Terrapene spp.) but living
eastern cottontails were observed during and after the fire .
The rate of fire spread is a major factor in direct mortality of small
mammals. After a fire that spread 0.6 to 0.8 m/sec with flame heights
up to 20 feet (6 m) and flame widths up to 36.3 feet (11 m), carcasses
of marsh rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris) and one cotton rat (Sigmodon
spp.) were found. However, no dead mammals were found after a fire that
spread at a rate of 0.1 m/sec . Komarek  found dead marsh
rabbits but living eastern cottontails after a fire; the implication was
that eastern cottontails were better able to escape the fire than their
congeners. Kelsall and others  asserted that forest fires were less
destructive to small mammals than grass fires because forest fires
usually move slower than grass fires.
In eastern Nebraska a search conducted immediately after an April
prescribed fire in tallgrass prairie turned up a litter of nestling
eastern cottontails that had been injured by the fire but were able to
run off. During the fire one adult eastern cottontail was observed
behind the fireline, appearing to be disoriented and possibly singed.
The researchers were unable to capture the animal for closer
examination. No injured or killed eastern cottontails were found after
two previous similar fires .
Komarek  did not list eastern cottontails as attracted to fire and
smoke, but they were listed as present on both black burns and on burned
areas that had greened up.
Most of the effect of fire on vertebrates is the abrupt habitat change
following the fire . Concentration of eastern cottontails into
unburned patches increases vulnerability to predators; predators hunted
extensively in unburned cover areas in Georgia slash pine-longleaf pine
woods after spring prescribed fires .
HABITAT RELATED FIRE EFFECTS :
Fire's effects on habitat depend on fire characteristics. Soils lose
fewer nutrients in low-severity fire than in severe fire. Severe fire
volatilizes nutrients and occasionally decreases wettability of the soil
surface. Low-severity fire increases herb diversity and stimulates
growth, particularly among native legumes. Improved nutritional levels
in forage species have been reported after fire. Soil fertilization may
increase eastern cottontail ovulation rates .
In southeastern Illinois tallgrass prairie eastern cottontails preferred
3-year postfire communities that had not been mowed over unburned plots
and 3-year postfire plots that had been mowed . In south-central
Iowa prescribed fires resulted in declines in eastern cottontail habitat
quality during the first few postfire months, but habitat quality
improved thereafter until it met or exceeded prefire levels .
In Oklahoma Cross Timbers habitats, pastures (some in post oak-blackjack
oak stands) were treated with herbicides (two types) in 1983 to control
shrubs, then burned in 1985 to maintain shrub control. There was a
gradual decline in eastern cottontail populations on all treatments
which was attributed to population cyclicity. However, eastern
cottontail density was higher on herbicide-only treated pastures and on
herbicide-burned pastures than on plots that were not treated with
herbicide and not burned. The herbicide treatments reduced shrub height
but increased stem density. Fire encouraged the growth of herbaceous
plants. The authors concluded that herbicide with or without fire has
no adverse impacts on resident eastern cottontail populations, and that
treatment areas had more preferred habitat than control areas .
In Alabama shortleaf pine-hardwood woodlands eastern cottontail
populations were similar on annually and biennially burned plots.
Annually burned plots usually had little fuel and thus experienced
low-severity fire that burned less than 50 percent of aboveground
vegetation. On biennially burned plots fuels were plentiful and
supported severe fire that removed all herbaceous vegetation. Eastern
cottontails chose artificial brushpiles more frequently on biennially
burned plots than on annually burned plots in immediate postfire
periods. Eastern cottontails moved off of severe fire plots during the
immediate postfire period [36,57].
In Florida cattle ranges in slash pine-palmetto flatwoods are maintained
in open condition by frequent prescribed fire. Eastern cottontails use
saw-palmetto patches for cover and saw-palmetto is encouraged by
frequent fire .
FIRE USE :
Prescribed fire is the most useful tool for enhancing eastern cottontail
habitat since it can be used to control the amount of brushy cover and
available forage . In New York prescribed fire every third year in
shrub stands within pitch pine-oak woodlands maintains shrub cover
adequate for eastern cottontails .
In Pennsylvania manipulation of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) and alder
(Alnus spp.) can be achieved with prescribed fire. Hawthorns are an
important food for eastern cottontails in the area, and can be
encouraged by periodic application of fire, since hawthorns sprout after
top-kill by fire .
In the Southeast pine woodlands are managed with frequent fire; eastern
cottontail habitat is usually at least adequate in managed pine stands.
Additional benefits of fire include reduction of eastern cottontail
parasites. Pine plantations are good eastern cottontail habitat for the
first five growing seasons after site preparation. They deteriorate
with increased canopy closure and do not improve until prescribed fire
(usually initiated in the ninth season) and/or thinning (usually
initiated in the fifteenth season) are implemented. To benefit eastern
cottontails, fire should be used at a frequency sufficient to maintain
open conditions and discourage broomsedge, but at long enough intervals
to retain some shrub cover and winter browse. There is a need to
balance annual fire, which increases summer forage, and longer-interval
fires to maintain shrubby areas. Prescribed fire for eastern cottontail
management therefore needs to be planned so as to leave patches of areas
in different postfire stages, with sufficient annual burn plots to
provide summer forage .
WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sylvilagus floridanus
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