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Cottontail rabbits are found throughout most of Alabama and are considered one of the easiest mammals to manage. Two keys to successful cottontail management are habitat diversity and interspersion. Interspersion is the mixing of habitat types key to successful cottontail populations.
The rabbit is primarily known as an "edge" species. An edge species prefers the area where two or more different habitat types meet. The area where a field and forest meet creates a habitat edge. Cottontails are extremely edge-dependent animals. Because of this, several small areas or patches of food and cover are much more beneficial than one large area containing food and cover. Multiple small areas provide more edge than one large area. When adequate amounts of quality food and cover exist, cottontail populations are very successful.
Areas providing adequate cover may include brushy fencerows, thickets, hayfields, wetland edges, young pine stands, thinned mature pine stands and ditch banks. The existence (or lack) of good cover may be the greatest single factor affecting rabbit populations. Good cover provides escape areas from predators, areas to feed and nest, and protection from severe weather, especially in the winter.
Brush piles are effective in providing good cover. In addition to providing excellent escape cover, brush piles provide thermal protection during cold weather. Constructing brush piles is relatively simple. The best brush piles are usually about five feet high, 15 feet wide and have more than one entrance and exit. Plastic pipe (not more than six inches in diameter) provides an excellent entrance and exit. Large logs, stumps or large stones can be used to construct the base. Each additional layer (up to three or four layers) consist of brush and branches creating a tangled pile on the top. Brush piles constructed according to recommendations may last up to 10 years.
Just as important as proper construction is placement. Brush piles should be located close to hedgerows, windbreaks, brushy thickets or areas where additional brushy cover is nearby. Additional cover can be provided by a process known as "live-topping" trees. This is the practice of cutting a tree trunk on a 30 degree angle about three-quarters of way through and leaning the tree to the ground. Because the tree is not cut all the way through, the branches may provide green cover for several years. "Live-topping" a tree next to a brush pile is even better.
Cottontails are herbivores, meaning their diet consists of vegetation. Succulent growth of leaves, stems, plant shoots and flowers are the preferred food of rabbits. As one would expect, food sources (goldenrod, wheat, clover, legumes, soybeans, garden crops, etc.) during the spring and summer months is usually not a limiting factor to rabbit populations. However, with the approach of winter and the disappearance of the rabbit’s preferred food sources, their diets change to the bark and twigs of plant species like poison ivy, sassafras, maple, dogwood, sumac and apple. If adequate food sources are not available, quarter-acre wildlife openings can be planted. There should be at least one opening for every two to five acres. These openings can be planted in clovers, alfalfa, peas, rye, wheat or a mixture of annuals.
Keep in mind a cottontail spends its entire life within an area no larger than 10 acres. Providing adequate cover and food is essential to a successful rabbit population. Remember, the diversity of both cover and food is the real key to having more rabbits. For more information contact Randy Liles, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, 4101 Hwy. 21 N., Jacksonville, AL 36265.
Randy Liles is a Supervising Wildlife Biologist with Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.