Cottontails vary in color from gray to brown and have large ears and hind feet and fluffy short white tails.
Females can have up to eight litters during warm-weather months. The average litter size is four to five young. Gestation is approximately 28 days, and during peak breeding season, females will be both pregnant and nursing. Mothers only feed their young once or twice within a 24-hour period, usually at night. The young are on their own at 21 days of age, when they’re about 4 to 5 inches long and fully furred with open eyes and upright ears.
Cottontails are an important part of nature’s food chain. The majority born each year do not survive their first season. They are consumed by predators that need a natural food source for their survival and that of their own young. Injuries caused by natural events or predators are nature’s way of providing food to other animals, and humans should not interfere with that system.
Nesting in Your Yard
Lawns and gardens in suburban neighborhoods provide excellent habitat for eastern cottontails. Cottontail nests are small depressions in the ground that are lined and covered with grass and the mother’s fur. The female will dig a new nest for each litter. It is strongly recommended that you leave the nest alone and allow the mother to raise her young. Remember, the young are on their own at 21 days of age. Do not relocate the nest; the mother visually knows where the nest is located, and she will not be able to find the nest if it is moved.
If the nest is in an area where a pet dog commonly stays, such as a backyard or dog run, place a laundry basket secured with a heavy object, such as a large rock, over the nest during the day. Remove the basket at dusk so the mother can return to feed at night, and replace the basket again in the morning. Repeat this until the young are on their own.
Reuniting Young and Mothers
If you have removed the young from the nest because you thought they were abandoned, they can be reunited with their mother if they have not been separated for more than 36 hours. Place the young back in the nest, and cover them with the grass and fur lining. Leave the nest alone; frequent activity around the nest can force the mother to abandon it. It is always best that young are raised by their own mother.
Pets and Cottontails
All cats — even declawed and well-fed cats — are instinctively proficient hunters. Free-roaming cats — domestic as well as feral — kill millions of wild animals each year nationwide.
If you care about wildlife:
- Always keep cats indoors.
- When cottontail nests are present, allow dogs outside only under direct supervision.
- Use welded wire to prevent animals from accessing openings under decks, elevated sheds, concrete slabs and porches. Secure outside access to crawl spaces.
The best way to keep cottontails out of your garden is to build a 2-foot-high chicken-wire fence around it. It is important to secure the bottom of the fence either by burying it 6 to 8 inches underground or by driving stakes into the ground at even intervals to prevent cottontails from pushing their way underneath.
Planting onions, flowering onions, garlic, fritillaria or tropaeolum around the perimeter may deter cottontails. The plants have either an unpleasant taste or smell.
Other taste deterrents work, such as spraying a mixture of 1 gallon of water and 2 tablespoons of hot sauce or garlic puree onto the plant, but they need to be reapplied after a heavy dew or rain. Nurseries or home centers may carry commercial products as well.
Public Health Concerns
Cottontails may carry tularemia bacteria, which can be transmitted to humans. As with all wildlife, avoid contact if possible.
What Not To Do
- Trapping and removing an animal is not always a solution to the problem. Removing the animal is illegal without the proper permits and only creates an open space for another animal. A trapped adult may also leave young behind to die of starvation in an inaccessible area. Focus on removing the attraction, not the animal.
- Never move young from a nest.
- Do not use poisons. They are inhumane and may be illegal. They can also result in secondary poisoning of raptors, wild scavengers and neighborhood pets.
- It is illegal to keep wild animals, even for a very short time. They have specialized nutritional, housing and handling needs that you are unlikely to be able to provide. Inexperienced individuals who attempt to raise or treat them inevitably produce unhealthy, tame animals that cannot survive in their natural habitats.
Willowbrook Wildlife Center
If you come across a wild animal and are concerned, leave it alone. Call Willowbrook Wildlife Center for advice at (630) 942-6200. The center is located at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except select holidays. Recorded messages provide general information for callers when the center is closed.