12 July 2009

What do we have here?

Is this an introduced Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)? or the native, vulnerable New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis)?

What began with a simple photo of a rabbit in our yard as it worked its way over to our garden beds has turned into a question I didn't even know I should be asking. I find myself having to ask these questions more and more as I become interested in the natural history of where I live. For my entire life I've seen cottontails in yards, on school fields, and I've always considered them the same way that I do squirrels: ubiquitous, herbivorous background animals that occasionally rise to the level of pest. Now that I've begun documenting the life that brushes up against us (hat tip: Urban Pantheist) I thought a bunny would be a fairly innocuous way to begin. I wanted to begin with a mammal because they are not exotic, and there are not so many of them to narrow down. My expectations have, however, been confounded.

When I began my rabbit research, I learned that in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, there are two types of cottontail rabbit, the Eastern and the New England. In differentiating between the two, I frequently read how similar the two species are, and how field marks alone wouldn't definitively tell me which rabbit was in my yard. Percentages figure prominently on the Mass. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife's webpage. Based on the numbers, I decided to focus on the New England Cottontail. As I read more, my reactions to what I learned migrated from elation (this might be a rare rabbit!) to confusion (wait, why would someone introduce a rabbit somewhere?) to incredulity (another native species marginalized by an introduced species!) to guilt (why didn't I know any of this before?).

The New England Cottontail prefers dense thickets in early succession forests. It usually has a dark spot between its ears, a dark line on the front of its ears, and always lacks a white spot on its forehead (indicative of the Eastern). My rabbit had these features, and around my house are some dense thickets of briars, blueberry and small stands of white pine, and some surrounding lots are abandoned and grown over or woodlots. The Eastern Cottontail often has a rusty patch on its upper back, is more numerous than the NE, and is more comfortable in suburban areas feeding in the open. Based on behavior more than field marks, I believe the rabbit in my driveway is an Eastern Cottontail, although I won't rule out a New England.

From what I've read, conservation for the New England Cottontail is not concerted, but it is underway. New Hampshire bans cottontail hunting in areas where NEs have been sighted, but other states seem only to recognize that NEs need help. Federal aid for Maine and New Hampshire has been announced. To think that this conservation effort has been going on for a few years now by people dedicated to seeing it through, and that I only stumbled upon it because I wanted to know more about the bunny in my yard is proof that Pandora's box came in plain packaging.

Animalia (Animals)
Chordata (Vertebrates)
Mammalia (Mammals)
Lagomorpha (Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas)
Leporidae (Hares and Rabbits)
Sylvilagus floridanus - Eastern Cottontail

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

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