If you’ve ever taken an early morning or early evening stroll, you’ve likely seen wild rabbits as they venture out to forage for food. Although they can be active during any time of day or night, they are known as being crepuscular, which means they are most active in the twilight hours of both sunrise and sunset. They have adapted to being most active during these hours to help them avoid predators.
In our part of Texas, we have two species of wild rabbits; the Eastern cottontail and the swamp (or marsh) rabbit. Both of these species are true rabbits (as opposed to the hare). The Jackrabbit, which is found in western Texas, is actually not a rabbit at all, but a hare. There are some significant differences, both in appearance and behavior. True rabbits build elaborate and sheltered nests as their young are nearly helpless at birth. Rabbits are smaller than hares and also have somewhat shorter ears and legs. Since jackrabbits are born with eyes open, body fully furred, and with the ability to hop around only moments after its birth, they have no need for an elaborate nest. In fact, the jackrabbit mother builds no nest at all.
The smallest species of rabbit in our area is the Eastern cottontail. Adults typically weigh only two to three pounds. The nest of the cottontail is a saucer-like depression three or four inches deep and about eight inches across. The female (doe) lines the nest with mouthfuls of soft, dead grass mixed with fur from her chest. Since the mother rabbit does not stay with the nest, a covering of grass and fur is used to hide the nest and keep the young warm and dry. At birth young cottontails are nearly hairless, blind, and completely dependent on their mother's care. Cottontail babies can be easily identified by the white spot on their heads, which gradually fades by the time they are about four weeks old. Since many other animals prey on rabbits, less than half of the young will survive to leave the nest and many others will be killed before reaching maturity. The 85-percent mortality rate of young rabbits is offset by their reproduction potential. Cottontails may have four to five litters each year with as many as eight young per litter. However, the average litter size is four. Newborn cottontails grow rapidly. When they are six to eight days old, their eyes and ears begin to open, and the young can move about and squeal. By the time they are two weeks old they have a fully-developed fur coat and are ready to leave the nest. By three to four weeks old, they are completely weaned they begin to fend for themselves. By the time they are four to five months old they are completely mature and cannot be distinguished from adults.
Swamp rabbits are somewhat larger than cottontails, generally in the three- to six-pound range. As its name implies, it is often found near water; its fur is waterproof so it is well adapted to its soggy surroundings. Unlike most rabbits, swamp rabbits are good swimmers and they often choose to take to the water. Similar to cottontails, the swamp rabbit female builds a fur-lined nest for her young, placing it in a hollow log or stump when possible. If no such shelter is available, the nest is constructed in a surface depression. The female generally has two or more litters per year, with two to three young in each. Newborn swamp rabbits are born fully furred but their eyes are closed like those of the eastern cottontail. Their eyes open when they are several days old and they begin moving around; they are completely weaned by around four weeks of age.