Photo: Melissa McGaw/NCWRC
Scientific Name: Sylvilagus floridanus
Species Profile (PDF)
Juvenile Eastern Cottontail (Jodie Owen)
The eastern cottontail is the most well-known and most widely distributed rabbit in North Carolina. It is one of three species of rabbits native to North Carolina. The other two species are the marsh rabbit and the Appalachian cottontail rabbit. The eastern cottontail is well-adapted to live in close proximity to humans, and suburban yards can provide ample habitat, with food and cover to support a family of cottontails.
The eastern cottontail is easily recognized by its brown upper parts and fuzzy white cotton ball-like tail. The more aquatic marsh rabbit (also known as a canecutter, or bluetail), though similar in size, can be distinguished from the eastern cottontail by its darker brown upper parts, and the bluish-gray coloration of its tail. The eastern cottontail can only be distinguished from the closely related Appalachian cottontail (which occurs at higher elevations in the mountains) by thorough examination of skull characteristics or genetic analysis.
Males, females, and young all exhibit similar coloration (although younger animals more frequently exhibit a white spot on the forehead which can be absent in older individuals). Sex is difficult to distinguish from external characteristics.
Learn more by reading the Eastern Cottontail species profile.
The eastern cottontail is classified as a game species with season and bag limits.
Seasons and limits (PDF)
Rabbits build their nests in low, dense vegetation, and are often discovered by unsuspecting homeowners when gardening or mowing the lawn. If you find a nest and there is no adult nearby, don’t worry - this is normal. Female rabbits only visit the nest to feed their young a few times a day, and will avoid drawing any attention to its location when people or other potential predators are nearby. If the young are undisturbed, it is best to leave the nest alone as you found it. Baby rabbits that are unharmed but outside the nest can be gently put back and the vegetation pressed into place to cover them. It can help to run your hands in dirt first to prevent leaving human scent around the nest, which may attract predators. Contrary to popular belief, human scent will not cause the mother rabbit to abandon her young. If one or more of the young rabbits are obviously injured, contact a licensed small mammal rehabilitator. If you suspect the nest has been or will be abandoned, place twigs or fresh blades of grass over the opening in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Check back in 24 hours and if the twigs have not been disturbed, contact a rehabilitator.
Young rabbits found outside the nest that are larger than 4 inches long and able to hop around freely are independent juveniles and do not need assistance. Young rabbits that are smaller than 4 inches and are relatively immobile are still under the care of their mother and should be returned to the nest, if possible. For young that are visibly injured or cannot be returned to the nest, contact a licensed small mammal rehabilitator for assistance.
Rabbits feed on tender, low-growing vegetation and can cause damage to garden or landscaping plants. Installing a rabbit-proof fence around valuable plants can prevent rabbits from gaining access. A good rabbit fence can be made with chicken wire that has been bent to form a 12 inch lip at the bottom, which can be buried a few inches underground, facing outward to prevent rabbits from tunneling underneath. Repellants made with blood/bone meal or "putrescent egg solids" can help keep rabbits and deer from damaging treated areas.
Rabbits are still a valued game species in the state even though they aren’t a staple food source like they once were to early settlers and rural citizens. Rabbits can also be considered potential competitors for farm or garden crops. Many North Carolina residents today appreciate the opportunity just to view cottontails.
Though not as numerous as in the past, rabbit hunters and beaglers are still an enthusiastic and dedicated lot. Once surpassed in numbers only by squirrel hunters, rabbit hunters now represent a smaller constituency of North Carolina’s overall hunting population.
2016-2020 Rabbit Hunting and Harvest Estimate Maps (PDF)
1949-2019 Rabbit Harvest and Hunter Trends (PDF)
Eastern cottontail species profile (PDF)
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (PDF)