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How cottontail rabbits survive the winter

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!

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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