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Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)


Young Eastern Cottontails are frequently "kidnapped" because their habits are not understood. It is important to determine whether the bunnies are truly orphans or "just home alone".

An adult female rabbit returns to her nest to feed her young only at night, after dusk and before dawn. The nest is usually built in a depressed area and lined with mother's fur and grasses. She has 3 to 5 blind and hairless babies that she continues to feed until approximately 3 to 4 weeks of age. The place chosen is one that mother considers safe. This might mean that the grass has not been mowed for a week while the homeowners are on vacation, or that it has not been tended to while it is raining. Unless you actually see the mother dead near the nest or the infants appear injured, do not assume they are orphaned. Mother rabbit stops by, uncovers the nest, feeds and stimulates the babies, re-covers the nest and is gone in less than 5 minutes. It is suggested that the nest area be "marked" with dental floss in a tic-tac-toe pattern, extending the floss 6" past the nest area. If in the morning the pattern has been changed, the mother rabbit has been by to feed the babies. Remove the floss and enjoy watching from a distance as the babies grow and begin to explore the great unknown.

Young rabbits with eyes open that are found outside the nest site should be left alone if uninjured unless they are smaller than the size of an orange and you have determined that they are truly orphaned. Rabbits begin to leave the nest for short periods when still small to explore and begin learning to self-feed. You must determine whether this animal is simply doing what is normal to a rabbit or whether it has left the nest because it has been abandoned and is desperate for food.

When startled, rabbits will freeze in place and stay absolutely still to avoid detection by predators. Many people mistake this for tameness or illness, but really it is an instinctual survival technique. Rabbits are very sensitive to stress, and can die from stress alone. A quiet bunny is a scared bunny. They do not adapt well to captivity and are extremely prone to fractures and stress.

Basic information:

  • Adult weight: 2-4 pounds. They have a relatively small heart and skeletal frame in proportion to their body weight. A rabbit's skeletal make-up is 8% of its body weight. In comparison, a cat's skeletal make-up is 13% of its body weight.

  • Habitat: Brushy areas, old fields, woods, cultivated areas; especially thickets and brush piles.

  • Range: East of the mid-western US and south from Southern Canada through Mexico and beyond.

  • Breeds: February through September

  • Litters: 3-4 per year of 1-9 young (usually 4-5)

  • Gestation Period: approximately 28 days (the doe mates again shortly after the young are born)

  • Life expectancy: 1 to 2 years

  • Eyes open 7to 10 days. Rabbits are usually on their own between 21-28 days of age.

  • Feeding: Adults have been observed eating up to 45% of their body weight in vegetation daily.

Pat Isaacs, Wildlife Rehabilitator, SC
December 6, 1998

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