Coexisting with Cottontails

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

If you reside in Southern Ontario, you are more likely than not familiar with Eastern Cottontails. We call them all sorts of things: rabbits, bunnies, cottontails. Eastern Cottontail is their formal species name. I thought I would explore some tips and tricks for coexisting with cottontails. 

Most of us find this species adorable and endearing, a welcomed visitor. However, during this time of year when they are actively nesting there can be some situations that pose a challenge or cause us to conflict with them in ways we didn't expect. Picture stumbling across a nest full of small baby cottontails hidden in your lawn! Spring through summer, this species is actively nesting. Cottontails nest in shallow depressions in the ground, covered by a small amount of grass or other plant material and fur. They can be quite inconspicuous, which is why they can pose a challenge. 

Eastern Cottontail. Photo by Shayna Hartley. 

Some important steps to take this time of year: 

  • Check your lawn before mowing it: as noted, cottontail nests are quite inconspicuous and can be a challenge to notice. Doing a quick check before you mow your lawn can prevent some unsavoury situations. Of course, no one wants to harm a nest full of cottontails, so surveying your lawn every so often can be helpful. 
  • Check your lawn if you have a dog: it may seem silly that a cottontail would nest in a yard with a huge predator (dog) in it, but it happens more often than not! Same rehabbers even think it could be an incentive: a dog might keep other predators at bay. If you have a backyard and dogs that you let out, doing the occasional lawn check can be helpful. Dogs often have some prey drive and/or are simply curious and can find the nest and end up pulling the babies out and harming them, even accidentally. Further, cottontails are a really nervous prey species and a predator disturbance can cause them to abandon the nest. If you discover there is a nest in your yard, you can put something like a laundry basket over it, BUT only when the dog is outside. Permanently blocking or altering this area will also block, exclude or confuse the mother. 
  • Cover your veggies! the most common complaint about cottontails I hear is their affinity for eating garden vegetables. As many of us are growing vegetables this time of year, it can become a point of contention.  Understandably, they are a herbivore species with a bounty of food in front of them! It is best practice to put some sort of barrier around vegetable gardens to exclude cottontails, unfortunately they won't just agree to leave your greens untouched and this is the easiest way to keep everyone happy. 
  • Keep your cat indoors: this is incredibly important to protect so many species, all year round. But particularly during nesting season, species like cottontails are incredibly vulnerable to cat attacks and it is really important to keep them inside, both for their own safety and the safety of other species. 

Cottontails are masters of disguise are can be quite difficult to spot in grassy areas. Photo by Kristen Martyn. 

If you do discover a nest of cottontails, please note: 

  • Cottontail nests are usually unattended. Lots of well-meaning people find nests and become concerned that the babies are alone with no mother in sight. In fact, the mother will only be there for a few minutes, a couple times a day. Typically around dusk and dawn, to feed the young. As a prey species, they do not want to remain out in the open. Additionally, they do not want to draw attention to a nest location. 
  • Never ever ever touch the young. For many species, like birds, the phrase "if you touch them their mom will abandon them" is a complete myth. But with cottontails, it has some truth. Any predator disturbance or scent at the nest location can cause nest abandonment. Further, they are such a nervous prey species that the young can actually have heart attacks from being held. Its best to just let them be and watch the cuteness from a distance! 
  • If you have suspicions that mom isn't returning to the nest, first try a string test. Take a few pieces of yarn or light cotton string, and place them over the nest in a tic-tac-toe pattern. It can help to take a photo of how you placed it, so you can compare it after. Leave the string overnight and check the following morning. If the string was moved, that is great news! It means that mom came back overnight and fed the babies. It can be really tricky to actually spot mom coming and going, so this is a good way to confirm that all is well if you had reason to be concerned. 
  • Refrain from moving a nest. Sometimes people find nests in what seem like dangerous or downright silly areas and think it would be best if the nest was moved, even a few feet into a more sheltered area. This is totally well-meaning but can have grave consequences. Rabbits are very specific about the location of their nest. Moving it even a foot or two can cause the mother to abandon the nest. Mother cottontails are also one of the only mammals who cannot pick up their babies and move them to a better spot on their own. 
Young cottontails grow up really quickly! After only 3 weeks they are ready to venture forth from their mothers territory. For reference, at this age they are about the size of a standard pop can. At this size, they are considered independent and are fine to function alone. Super impressive.. and cute. 

My hope for you this nesting season is seeing many adorable little cottontails and enjoying all the precious life this time of year brings forth. 



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