Cottontail Rabbits

Scientific Name: Genus Sylvilagus


Colorado is home to three different species of cottontail rabbits; the mountain cotton tail, the desert cottontail, and the eastern cottontail. Almost everyone recognizes rabbits with their distinctive hopping gait and long ears. They are about 16 inches long and weigh about two pounds. Cottontails are smaller than jackrabbits and have shorter ears. The species of cottontails differ mostly by color and are difficult or impossible to distinguish in the field, except by habitat and geographic location.


Mountain cottontails live in the mountains and in the northwest, desert cottontails live in the southwest and on the eastern plains, eastern cottontails live in woodlands along watercourses in the east.


Cottontails mostly live in brushy country. Therefore they may be favored by habitat disturbance, such as forest clearance, burning, and ornamental plantings. They spend the day in a shallow depression in the shelter of a thicket.


They eat vegetation, both herbaceous and woody, feeding early morning and late afternoon throughout the year.


Reproduction takes place throughout the warmer months, with females giving birth to two to six litters of four to seven blind, pink young after a gestation period of about four weeks. Such high birth rates obviously must be balanced by high death rates or ecosystems would be overwhelmed by cottontails. Coyotes, foxes, hawks, and owls eat adults. Weasels and rattlesnakes prey on the young, and disease and parasites take a toll on all age groups. Maximum life span in the wild is no more than about a year. Human hunters kill 50,000 or more cottontails some years.


By David M. Armstrong Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Environmental Studies Program, University Museum of Natural History University of Colorado-Boulder

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