The eastern cottontail is a common critter found all across West Virginia. They’re usually found close to thick cover since they are a highly favored prey species for several different predators. Since rabbits are so low on the food chain, they rely on high reproductive rates to survive and maintain populations.
Cottontails have big ears and their body is covered with brown fur with a white underbelly. They get their name from the round white tail that resembles a large cotton ball. Rabbits are quick as they have to be to escape predators. They actually hop instead of run because their hind legs are longer than their front legs.
The females are slightly heavier than the males and an average cottontail weighs between 2 to 3 pounds. During the summer rabbits feed on green vegetation such as grasses, clovers and other herbs, as well as your garden. In the spring and summer there’s also a lot more cover due to all the green vegetation.
In the winter, cottontails stick close to the thickest cover available and will seek shelter in brush piles and old groundhog holes. They know where every hole in the ground is located and will make a mad dash to the safe retreat if a predator or rabbit beagle shows up. When the snow starts piling up, rabbits will stay close to their holes and may seek shelter for a couple days.
During the winter months cottontails feed on woody plant material such as bark and twigs as well as buds off trees and shrubs. They stay active throughout the winter and often come out at night when snow is covering the ground. Of course they leave tracks and round droppings behind which is sign rabbit hunters look for. If you look close by at the base of small saplings and brush you can sometimes see bark missing where rabbits have been eating it.
As stated earlier, rabbits have a high reproductive rate and mating takes place from February to September. Pregnancy lasts a whole four weeks and the average litter size is four to five. Females can have several litters per year and it’s not uncommon for females born in the spring to produce young of their own in the fall.
The female carefully constructs a nest by digging a depression with her forefeet in the ground near cover. Next she lines the nest with dried grasses and moss before adding an inner layer of fur from her coat. The whole nest is then covered with leaves.
During the day females do not stay with their young but they will be close by. She’ll return before dark for feeding. So finding young rabbits alone doesn’t mean they’re abandoned and in this instance it’s better to leave them where you find them. The young are born blind but are fully covered in fur at 16 days. The young’uns venture out on their own in no time — only seven weeks after they’re born. The average life span for an eastern cottontail in the wild is six months to a year.
Rabbits have long been a favorite small game species to hunt during the winter months. Beagles have been born and bred to pursue rabbits and there’s nothing like hearing a good chase. These energetic dogs are always in high spirits as they search hard in every brush pile with their bloody tipped tails constantly wagging the whole time.
Once the beagles jump a rabbit the chase is on. Rabbits tend to run in circles and will usually come back to the place where they were jumped if they don’t find a hole first. Hunters form a line and keep watch where the chase first started, waiting for the hounds to bring the rabbit back around.
This is where it gets exciting because you can hear the dogs howling in the distance and as they get closer and closer you know the rabbit is going to show at any second. Many times the rabbit is out in front of the dogs and you’ll see it before the dogs are even in sight. The sneaky cottontails will even stop and lick their front feet to keep their scent down.
They’ll then take off and even cross paths where it’s previously been to lay a scent trail to try and confuse the hounds. A good beagle can distinguish between a fresh track and a cold track.
Rabbit season is in until Feb. 28 and as long as the weather cooperates I hope to get out soon. I always enjoy rabbit hunting with beagles as it’s about listening and watching the dogs hunt more than anything else.