Wildlife: Summer rains increase the cottontail count

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Reader Cecily Franklin wonders, "Why are there so many bunnies this year? We see them every day, often two or three at a time. And they're big and fearless."

Assuming we're talking about backyard cottontails, they are often large and fearless because there is usually plenty of food in backyards, and backyards are safer from predators than wilder areas. Species found close to homes are typically bolder simply because they learn that people pose little threat, so over time they lose their fear of people.

Cottontail numbers peak in mid-summer, so reports of many rabbits in July are no surprise. The first mating of the year occurs in February, when rabbit populations are at their low point. After a gestation period of about 28 days, females give birth to the first of four or five litters that average five young. Five weeks later they are weaned and independent, and the female is already pregnant with her next litter. This breeding pattern continues well into October, so adult female cottontails typically produce 20 to 30 young each year. With such reproductive potential, there's rarely a shortage of cottontails.

On the other hand, mortality awaits rabbits at every turn. Domestic dogs and cats, foxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, weasels, hawks, owls and snakes prey on rabbits. Farming equipment kills many, especially during nesting. Heavy rains flood many nests. Parasites and disease take a heavy toll. In many areas, cottontails are a favorite target of small game hunters. And as anyone who travels country roads knows, highway mortality is high.

This year's frequent rains have actually been beneficial for cottontails in some areas.

"Wet hayfields in some areas forced farmers to delay their first cutting of hay," said Game Commission biologist Tom Hardisky, in a recent interview. "So cottontail survival has been good so far. But I expect that by fall things will even out, and cottontail numbers will be normal."

Though cottontails enjoy a phenomenal reproductive rate, a variety of mortality factors haunt them every single day. Few live to see two winters, but long-term populations stay remarkably stable.

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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