According to MassWildlife, the New England Cottontail (NE) is the only cottontail rabbit native to New England and they historically inhabited these states as well as eastern NY. Since 1960 their range has decreased by 86% and is restricted to small isolated populations in parts of these states with Vermont no longer having them. In 2006 the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated it as a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection and determined that habitat loss and fragmentation was the primary threat. USFWS and state agencies are working together to implement strategies to restore or create young forest/shrubland habitat in an attempt to avert Federal listing.
Blocks of 25 acres or more are ideal, as this is the minimum amount of habitat thought to sustain cottontail populations. Since the NE experience low survival in habitat patches less than 12 acres, the most valuable locations will be at least this size. Conservation efforts involve creating or restoring habitat in areas where they are currently known to occur and funding assistance for management on private lands is available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS).
According to MassWildlife, the only way to distinguish between the New England and the more common Eastern cottontail is by examining various skull features or submitting tissue samples for DNA analysis. Therefore carcasses in any condition can be donated to facilitate conservation efforts. Road killed carcasses or cottontail heads should be placed in a plastic bag and frozen until they can be dropped off at a MassWildlife District Office or Field Hqs. Be sure to wear gloves when handling carcasses and include a note with your contact information, date of collection and detailed, specific location information such as the street address, intersection or other discernible landmark.
My father, who was a rabbit hunter, was aware of the two kinds of cottontails, referring to one type as “swamp rabbits”. I never knew which type it was nor could I tell the difference. They all tasted the same to me, too. It has been said that the NE Cottontails are sometimes slightly smaller and darker with dark spots on their heads. The Eastern Cottontail supposedly has eyes higher up on its head and can spot overhead predators such as hawks and owls easier, which would explain its higher survival rate. According to MassWildlife, there is no evidence of interbreeding between the two bunnies.
In December, 2010 MassWildlife appealed to sportsmen, highway department workers, animal control officers and others to provide them with carcasses or skulls. Since the first appeal, 500 specimens were received and about 10% have been identified as NE Cottontails, and significantly, several new local populations have been identified. The majority of the samples came from the eastern and southeastern parts of the state, and they need more specimens from Worcester County and all points west.
Efforts to manage habitat suitable for NE Cottontails are being implemented on public and private land in specific focal areas where they are known to occur. Private landowners interested in contributing to these conservation efforts may be eligible to receive funding assistance to implement a habitat management project. In the Berkshires there is a focal area which includes Becket, Monterey, Otis, Blanford, New Marlboro, Sandisfield, Tolland and Granville. Contact Marianne Piché at (508)389-6313 or Marianne.Piche@state.ma.us about how you may be able to participate in managing habitat for these bunnies and other species in greatest need of conservation. *****
Speaking of habitat management, last month you may have seen people doing some digging and planting next to the Housatonic River along Route 8 in Hinsdale near the parking area of the Old Mill Trailhead of the Housatonic River Association (HVA) River trail. They were members of the Taconic Chapter of Trout Unlimited, HVA and Project Native, all non-profits concerned about our streams and the environment. They were planting native trees, shrubs and wildflowers which were selected to enhance the biodiversity of the stream and buffer zone. These native plants will provide shade for the fish and habitat for native birds, butterflies and pollinators and will act as a buffer between the parking lot pavement and river, thus reducing runoff.
Grants, which were obtained from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, the Fields Pond Foundation and the Housatonic Heritage Foundation, were used for the project which started approximately a year ago.
I am listing the plants and trees that were planted in case you have a stream on your property or know of a stream that could use some shade and biodiversity. The common names for the trees planted were: Red Osier Dogwood, Sycamore, White Oak and small elderberry. The plants and wildflowers were: Boneset, Purple Joe-Pye and Carolina Thermopsis. If you need some of them, contact Project Native at (413)274-3433 or www.projectnative.org.*****