What’s all this snow good for? Finding New England cottontails!

A cottontail pellet at Stonyfield Yogurt's New England cottontail project. Fecal pellets, the small, round, brownish droppings of rabbits, tested positively at this site for the unique New England cottontail DNA. Credit: Jenna Bourne, Stonyfield

Does March really start next week? Hard to believe with the record-setting snowfall and temperatures we’re experiencing in New England.

One way to find cottontails is to look for signs of browsing on shrubs. Credit: Chuck Fergus, newenglandcottontail.org

One way to find cottontails is to look for signs of browsing on shrubs. Credit: Chuck Fergus, newenglandcottontail.org

While I’ve personally reached my limit with Old Man Winter, some of our biologists are telling me that all this snow is good for something: finding New England cottontails! For those new to tracking cottontails, you should be aware that they live in THICK tangled shrubs, and in order to search for their signs, we crawl, push and work our way through the thicket.

Can you spot the New England cottontail? Credit: Tony Tur/USFWS

Can you spot the New England cottontail? Credit: Tony Tur/USFWS

New England cottontails spend most of their time in these dense thickets, which can make them pretty hard to find. But they do leave us clues about their presence, such as droppings (fecal pellets), tracks, gnawed tree bark and browsed twigs. Fresh snowfall in particular makes it easy to spot the round brown pellets and tracks. We use DNA analysis to distinguish the pellets from those of snowshoe hares or the nonnative and common eastern cottontails.

A cottontail pellet at Stonyfield Yogurt's New England cottontail project. Fecal pellets, the small, round, brownish droppings of rabbits, tested positively at this site for the unique New England cottontail DNA. Credit: Jenna Bourne, Stonyfield

A cottontail pellet at Stonyfield Yogurt’s New England cottontail project. Fecal pellets, the small, round, brownish droppings of rabbits, tested positively at this site for the unique New England cottontail DNA. Credit: Jenna Bourne, Stonyfield

For example, we’ve partnered with Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and University of Rhode Island researchers to completely survey the four sites (including on our refuge lands) where New England cottontails have been detected since 2009 in Rhode Island.

Also, 11 Unity College students in Maine bundled up to help our Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge staff track and survey for cottontails last week. They strapped on snowshoes and trekked all over Kelly Field in Scarborough in search of cottontail tracks and pellets.

The Unity College students that braved the cold in honor of the New England cottontail initiative. Credit: USFWS

The Unity College students that braved the cold in honor of the New England cottontail initiative. Credit: USFWS

What in the world could New England cottontails possibly find to eat this time of year? As snow accumulates, even the cold-weather food sources disappear, like raspberry, blackberry and willow, and the cottontail turns to bark, twigs and buds. Gray birch and red maple provide it with food and cover from predators.

Where do the rabbits go? Here's a winter rabbit den under a stump in Maine.  Credit: Kelly Boland/USFWS

Where do the rabbits go? Here’s a winter rabbit den under a stump in Maine.
Credit: Kelly Boland/USFWS

The snow doesn’t help only us, unfortunately. Predators like coyotes, red foxes, owls and domestic cats can also take advantage of the snow to find cottontails. Unlike the snowshoe hare, the cottontail’s fur remains a brownish gray rather than transitioning to white in the winter.

On to the rabbitat! (Get it? Rabbit+habitat? Maybe it was just funny to me.)

2 Comments on “What’s all this snow good for? Finding New England cottontails!

  1. Pingback: How does a harsh winter affect wildlife? | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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