My husband and I keep opening up our mud room door to see an eastern cottontail rabbit darting away, and any fresh snow reveals bunny tracks on our concrete patio.

“Why does it keep sitting here?” My husband asked me.

“I don’t know, maybe trying to keep out of the wind?”

We started to discuss where it might be living and how it might be trying to stay warm and find food in the winter, and we realized neither of us really knew how these little creatures could survive a harsh Iowa winter.

It’s often discussions like this, during which come up questions that I can’t answer, that inspire me to do some research and write a blog, thinking that others don’t know the answers to these questions either.

Photo of a cottontail rabbit

What do rabbits eat in the winter?

Rabbits are almost 100 percent herbivores, meaning their diet is made up of plant material. In the summer, they forage for leaves, stems and flowers of grasses, sedges, herbs and even garden crops. However, when fresh greens die off in the fall or are covered by snow in the winter, they will look for the bark of woody plants like willow, birch and white oak trees or from rose or sumac bushes.

Many times, rabbits will also find winter quarters in brushy areas near agricultural fields on which they can scavenge for waste grain as winds blow areas of fields clean of snow.

Rabbits can eat more than plants — sometimes finding snails, moths or other insects. They also eat their own feces to obtain Vitamin B produced by bacteria as the food first went through the large intestine.

How do rabbits stay warm in the winter?

Most rabbits live in a 5-acre area their entire lives. The eastern cottontail rabbit doesn’t dig its own burrows like some other rabbit species do, so they will either find an empty burrow from another animal to crawl into or they will look for woody vegetation to huddle under during cold weather. In suburban areas, they will also look for covered areas under porches, cars or by garages that are out of the elements.

How many rabbits survive winter?

Cottontail rabbits do not have a high survival rate, with most not making it more than 1 year in the wild. A study in Michigan showed that only two out of 226 tagged cottontail rabbits reached 2 years old. Some studies have found that about 30 percent of rabbits will survive winter.

That may seem low, but cottontail rabbits breed February-September to make up for these low survival rates. A female rabbit — called a doe — can produce up to 6 litters per year with 1-8 babies per litter.

Want to learn more about cottontail rabbits? Read “7 Cute Cottontail Facts” and see Bindi, the Dickinson County Nature Center’s bunny ambassador!

How animals survive the winter

Humans often hole themselves up in their houses to survive the winter in front of the fire with hot chocolate. However, animals have to survive the frigid chill outside in the elements, and they have different ways of dealing with the change in seasons. Let’s take a quick look at how these Iowa animals survive.…

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How deer survive the winter

When walking through deep snow, it’s always easier when someone else leads. That person gets tired breaking the trail, but everyone who walks in his or her footsteps has an easier time of it. That is one reason that deer congregate during the winter. When they all use the same network of trails through the…

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How bats survive the winter

Iowa has nine species of bats (you can read more about them here) and some of them hibernate while others migrate, and some migrate to hibernate. Iowa’s two most common bats, and those that you would find in Dickinson County, are the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) and the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus). Both…

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Painted and snapping turtles survive winter underwater

We see many types of turtles roaming around northwest Iowa in the summertime, especially painted turtles and snapping turtles. But we don’t see any in the winter. Where do they all go? Painted turtles and snapping turtles spend their winters in lakes or ponds, living beneath the ice the forms. They survive because of a…

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Squirreling away nuts for winter

During the autumn season, you’ll see acorns and other nuts falling from trees as the trees get ready to go dormant — basically, sleep — during the winter. Many animals take advantage of this time and gather those nuts to eat during the winter, and you’ve most likely seen plenty of squirrels running around with…

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Iowa winter birds

Pine siskins, purple finches, dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows — these Iowa winter birds are really only just a few of the birds that make winter a bit more fun in this cold state. 1. Red-breasted nuthatch Red-breasted nuthatches live year-round in many parts of the western United States and Canada, but they spent winter,…

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How fish survive in frozen lakes

The frozen Iowa Great Lakes are dotted with blue and black as ice fishermen set up their shacks, drill holes and search for life below the ice. And there is still plenty of life to be found, but how exactly do fish survive in those frigid temperatures? You can learn how ice is created on…

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Recycled bunny bookmark

Bindi, named after conservationist Steve Irwin’s daughter, Bindi Irwin, is the newest animal ambassador at the Dickinson County Nature Center as of August 2018. In honor of her arrival, today’s craft is bunny-themed! (Learn about cottontail rabbits) To make this adorable bunny bookmark, you’ll need: An envelope, a used one is fine Scissors Glue Googly…

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How honeybees survive the winter

The numbers of bees in the indoor beehive have gone down. But that’s pretty normal this time of year. It just means that our bees have entered winter mode and are getting ready to survive cold weather. Baby, it’s cold outside. As the weather cools down, a honeybee hive starts to change. One of the…

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2 Comments

  1. stella ramirez on October 31, 2019 at 7:00 pm

    i had been feeding the cotton tail rabbits al year by giving them fresh carrots and tortillas, then this winter, a very mean property manager where i live stopped me from feeding them or i will be fined and i was cause i did give the rabbits carrots still. i worry now how they will survive this snowy weather. they look up to my balcony waiting for carrots to be tossed to them but i couldn’t cause my nosey neighbor will tell the landlord. i feel so bad not giving them carrots. am still thinking how to reach the carrots to them without being seen by anyone. i feel very sad right now worrying about these rabbits i used to feed.

    • kiley on November 1, 2019 at 12:09 pm

      Stella, That is very kind of you to want to help wildlife, but we don’t recommend feeding wild animals. They are able to find the right food and nutrition that they need in the wild and have instincts to take care of themselves. It’s hard to not do it, because they are so cute! I bet those rabbits are going to be just fine 🙂 I hope your mind is at ease!

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