Peter Rabbit had a bit of an insecurity complex. Peter is a bunny and a character in books written by Springfield, Mass., author Thornton Burgess. Peter Rabbit felt that his name was too plain and changed it to Peter Cottontail in the Old Mother West Wind book series because Cottontail sounded more important.
With his fancy new name, Peter put on airs and alienated his friends. After much teasing, Peter realized that there was nothing wrong with his original name and changed it back.
Though Peter learned that his name didn’t matter, in the world of cottontail rabbits, names do matter.
The original, and only, cottontail that can claim native status in Massachusetts — and in the northeast, for that matter — is the New England cottontail. At one time the New England cottontail was found in every county in the commonwealth. In the past 50 years, this species of rabbit has decreased dramatically and now there are only a few extant populations remaining in the state.
Between 1924 and 1941, another cottontail species was introduced to Massachusetts lands. The eastern cottontail was imported from the Midwest and released by state agencies and private hunting clubs for recreational purposes.
This tale of two bunnies provides both a happy and sad ending, depending upon which species you are rooting for. If there was a bunny “Survivor” episode on Martha’s Vineyard, the winner would be the eastern cottontail. Though New England cottontails were historically present on the Vineyard, their numbers dwindled after diseased eastern cottontails were introduced to the Island in the 1920s and now they are no longer found here.
The New England cottontail is in trouble off-Island as well. It is a species of concern regionally, and under review for inclusion on the federal endangered species list due to the rapid decline over much of its historic range. There are only an estimated three dozen in New Hampshire, less than 500 rabbits in Maine, and only a couple of thousand in Connecticut. Massachusetts has a few hundred in a handful of locations statewide. In Vermont, they are all gone.
Though both species live up to their breeding reputation, the reasons for one’s decline and another’s increase involves other factors. Habitat is one. The New England cottontail, also called brush or woods rabbit, is a forest rabbit, preferring brushy areas with shrubs and trees. Young forests are perfect for this rare rabbit. Eastern cottontails can live almost anywhere, and do well in the open landscapes and even suburbs that have been created over the last 50 years.
Predation is another factor. Though owls, skunks, raccoons, snakes, and hawks can easily make a bunny their dinner, one species has an advantage against these predators. The eyes of the eastern cottontail are larger and help them see predators more quickly. Eastern cottontails are also known to travel further for food and so have another survival advantage over the New England cottontails.
Telling the difference between these two cottontails can be very difficult. In fact, only examination of the skull or a DNA test will give a definitive identification. However, there are other clues that one might be able to notice. The New England variety has a smaller body, shorter ears, a black line along the front edge of the ears and a black spot between the ears. They lack a white spot on their forehead.
If you can’t tell which rabbit is which, don’t be surprised; but the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) can help. The DFW does periodic surveys to track populations of cottontail species, examining road kill and other samples they receive. In fact, the division notes that it “gratefully accepts cottontails” from anywhere in the state, but check with them about how to send samples, since I don’t think hasenpfeffer is what they are looking for!
Competition, predation and habitat loss is a recipe for disaster for the New England cottontail. Efforts are being made to improve habitat and even reintroduce the New England cottontail to help improve its chances of survival. Wish these natives well. Here’s hoping they succeed and multiple like rabbits!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.