Rabbit, Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)

Size: 

2 to 4 pounds. Body is 14–18 inches long. 

Signs of their presence: 

Visual sighting of animal. 

Damaged garden crops: what won’t they eat? Tomatoes—that’s about it. But it’s hard to tell whether a rabbit, woodchuck, or deer is responsible for damage to flowers or vegetables. 

Damaged shrubs and trees. Usually you can tell if this damage was caused by a rabbit, vole, or deer. Rabbits attack smooth bark and gnaw in patches. Their toothmarks are a little less than an inch wide—wider, but less distinct, than the voles’. They often clip twigs, branches, and berry canes with a clean 45-degree-angle cut. Deer, on the other hand, lack upper incisors, so they leave ragged edges when they browse on branches. 

Tracks: seen in groups of four. The tracks of the back feet actually imprint ahead of the front feet because rabbits leap, pushing off from their front feet. The front track is almost round, about 1″ wide, the hind track is about 3–4″ long and oblong. 

Scat: 1/3″ in diameter, round, flying-saucer shaped, looks like compressed sawdust. One rabbit leaves 250 to 500 pellets a day. Like hares, voles, and beavers, they eat their feces to extract more nutrients from grasses and tree bark, which are difficult to digest. 

Sounds: Usually quiet, other than a high scream of distress when attacked, the grunt of the mother when her nest is approached, or the high squeal of a female during mating. 

Diet: 

Herbivore. In the winter, they often eat the bark, twigs, and buds of ornamental shrubs and fruit trees because everything else is covered by snow. In the spring and summer, they switch to vegetables, field crops, flowers, and other succulent green plants. It’s probably easier to list what rabbits won’t eat than what they will, because they’ll eat many kinds of plants. They don’t dig up carrots or flower bulbs and don’t like tomatoes. 

Typical activity patterns: 

Social style: Mostly solitary, although they may have an informal social network. 

Daily activity: Nocturnal, and crepuscular. May feed during the day in summer, under or near thick cover. 

Hibernator? No. 

Migrates? No. 

Where found: 

In Wisconsin, Eastern cottontails can be found in grassy areas. They are found throughout the southern two-thirds of the state and near cities in the northeastern part of the state.  

Habitat: Prefer brushy fence rows, field edges, overgrown pastures, sapling stands, and shrub or perennial borders in landscaped backyards. They don’t need a water source because they can get what they need from snow or dew. Rabbit densities can be around 3–5/acre; and even more if the habitat is favorable. They don’t dig holes but will take refuge in a skunk or woodchuck burrow in bad weather—always staying right near the entry. Normally they rest in small depressions in the grass. 

Territory and home range: Not territorial, but they are aggressive and establish a dominance ranking within each gender. Females are generally dominant over males, except during breeding. Rabbits have overlapping home ranges of 1–14 acres, but is generally around 9 acres. However, that may shift as food sources and habitat changes with the seasons. Males tend to have a larger home range than the females.  

Breeding habits: 

Pair bonding style: Rabbits are polygamous, with dominant males mating the most. Female raises the young alone. 

Breeding dates: Late February through September. Gestation is variable but averages 28 days. Females have up to six litters per year, giving birth to as many as 35 young. Females may breed again as soon as they’ve given birth. 

Litter size: 4–5. May see as few as 2 or as many as 8. Mothers only visit their young at night, to nurse them. 

Weaning dates: Between 4–5 weeks old. 

Amount of time young remain with parents beyond weaning date: Not long. 

Common nuisance situations: 

Time of year: Any time of year. 

What are they doing? 

Eat flowers, vegetables, and agricultural crops. 

Can girdle young trees and shrubs (ornamental and fruit). 

Disease risks: tularemia. 

Legal status in Wisconsin: 

Protected. Rabbits are a protected game species in Wisconsin with a set hunting season. 

Best practices 

Since rabbits are such prolific breeders, removal efforts may not be effective for long lasting results. Instead, one should focus on exclusion and habitat modification. 

Reduce their nesting sites: 

Rabbits need dense cover close to their feeding areas to escape to when danger is near. Removal of cover can make the area less attractive to rabbits. 

Remove brush piles. 

Trim shrubs and fencerows. 

Keep paths around gardens and fields closely mowed. 

Clean up overgrown ditches or stream banks that are near crops. 

Protect vulnerable plants or areas: 

For a small area, erect a 2 ft. high chicken wire fence with a 1″ mesh that’s either buried a few inches deep or very tight to the ground. Rabbits won’t dig under the fence, but they will try to squeeze through loose spots. Support the fence every 6–8 feet with a strong post. 

Put cylinders of 1/4″ hardware cloth around trees and shrubs until their bark roughens. Keep the mesh an inch or so away from the plant. 

 If you use 1/2″ mesh, be sure it’s far enough away from the plant to prevent the rabbits from nibbling through the mesh. 

Commercial tree wrap can protect young trees. Remember, most tree damage happens during the winter. When there’s deep snow, the rabbits can reach much higher. 

A dome or cage of chicken wire over small garden beds will discourage rabbits. 

A single-strand polytape electric fence will work well. To keep deer from damaging the fence accidentally, hang white cotton flagging on the fence every 6 feet to make it more obvious at night. You can spray the flagging with a deer repellent for extra security (if you have a commercial pesticide applicator license). 

If there’s an existing electric fence, add three additional wires at 5, 10, and 15 inches from the ground to keep the rabbits out, too. This also discourages woodchucks. 

A 2-ft. high welded wire fence made of 1″ mesh, installed in the rat wall “L” shape with a top wire that’s electric also works well, but is more expensive. 

NWCOs with commercial pesticide applicator licenses: 

Many repellents registered for deer are also registered for use against rabbits. Egg-based repellents have proved effective; other possibilities include capsaicin (hot pepper), and thiram products. 

Trapping strategies: 

Rabbits breed quite often, so live trapping may not be a long-term solution unless the individual is persistent with their methods. If live trapping does not solve the problem, lethal method such as shooting may become a better option, following local ordinances of course.  

Live traps: 

Rabbits can be captured in a box or cage trap (9 × 9 × 18″) known as a Havahart.   

These traps should be set an hour before the rabbits are most active, dawn and dusk.  

One might find behind success with live trapping during winter months as a large amount of food supply is not available.  

Place the traps in an area which rabbits tend to use often. 

These areas include where they are feeding, where they come out of cover, or where they head for cover when startled.  

For baits one may use but is not limited to carrots, brussels sprouts, lettuce, or apples. 

Make sure the bait is fresh that way it is the most appealing. 

Traps should be placed where weather cannot interfere in a detrimental way. Such as winds triggering the trap door to close or snow buildup.  

Leaving the trap in the same place for a few days may help the rabbits get accustomed to its presence 

However, if nothing has been caught in around a week, try a new spot.  

Lethal techniques: 

Shooting  

Body-gripping traps, #110, or #120, set in the hole. Cover the trap or take other precautions to prevent the capture of non-targets, as described in chapter five. 

Traps cannot be larger than 60 square inches (7 ½ inches jaw spread) and be in the open. The trap may be between 60-75 square inches if enclosed or at least 5 feet above the ground/surface.  

If you do not hunt, have others come and hunt on your property to alleviate the issue. 

Preferred killing methods: 

CO2 chamber 

Cervical dislocation 

Lethal dose of barbiturate, if possible 

Stunning and chest compression 

Shooting using an air rifle, shotgun, or .22-caliber rifle (target the head if rabies testing isn’t required, or the heart/lungs) 

Acceptable killing methods: 

Stunning and decapitation 

Stunning and cervical dislocation 

Stunning and shooting 

Control Strategies 

Fence off the area of which you are trying to protect such as a garden or flowerbed 

Buy a repellent from a store 

Liquid or granular 

Install motion sensor sprinklers around or in the area of interest 

Remove brush piles or thick cover to make the area less suitable.   

Keep dogs out in your yard  

Create roosting spots for birds of prey. If there is a large population of rabbits causing the issue this may not help  

Control Strategies that don’t work particularly well, or aren’t legal in Wisconsin: 

Pour vinegar around the vulnerable area 

Sprinkle red pepper flakes around areas that are being protected 

The flakes will irritate the soft exposed tissue of the rabbit 

For information on pesticides follow the link https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/PesticidesProducts.aspx