A Guide to Hunting Cottontail Rabbits

A Guide to Hunting Cottontail Rabbits

The beauty of the cottontail rabbit lies in its near ubiquity. The vast majority of hunters in America are within an easy drive of prime cottontail country.

Chasing these rabbits allows you to master the art of the carefully planned drive as well as the ability to connect on moving targets with a shotgun or rifle.

What’s more, cottontails make for excellent eating. You can braise them, grill them, bake them, really just about anything that can done with chicken. And seasons are plenty long. In many states, you can legally hunt for cottontails more days a year than you cannot.

Scientific Name:
Sylvilagus floridanus

Cottontail Rabbit Subspecies 

  • Swamp Rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus)
  • Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)
  • Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)
  • Mountain Cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii)
  • Alleghany Cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus)
  • Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris)
  • New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis)

The distributions of these various species often overlap.

Bar Room Banter
For many folks, the biological difference between rabbits and hares is not well understood. Both belong to the family Leporidae, of which there are 18 species in North America. Even the names of these species leads to some confusion, as jackrabbits are not actually rabbits, they are hares. One of the primary differences between rabbits and hares is that hares are precocial, meaning they give birth to well-developed and fully furred young that have open eyes.

Rabbits are altricial, meaning they give birth to poorly developed young that are bald and with closed eyes. If you know what to look for, you can distinguish between adult rabbits and hares based on appearances alone. Hares are usually larger than rabbits and have longer ears and longer, more powerful hind legs.

Hares are generally fast and outrun their predators. Rabbits are slower and evade predators by hiding in thick cover. You can taste the difference, too. The flesh of hares is darker and strong-flavored, while rabbit flesh is lighter and often as mild as chicken. This perhaps explains why there are domesticated rabbits but no domesticated hares.

Physical Characteristics
The eastern cottontail, which is the most common of the cottontail rabbits, has grayish brown fur above that is often grizzled with black hairs. The neck is rust-colored. The underside of the tail and the lower belly are white. The other cottontails are very similar in appearance. The largest of the cottontails is the swamp rabbit, which weighs up to 6 pounds. The mountain cottontail is less than half that size, at around 2.5 pounds.

Most cottontails feed primarily on herbaceous plants but will eat bark from a variety of trees in the winter. Different cottontail species have their own food preferences according to their range. Swamp rabbits will feed on aquatic plants; mountain cottontails will eat juniper berries; marsh rabbits will feed on cane; New England cottontails have been known to re-ingest their own droppings.

Life and Death:

Even if a cottontail survives to leave its nest, it will most likely be dead before it’s a year old. A 4-year-old cottontail is an old-timer. A list of their predators runs very long, but to name a few: foxes, coyotes, bobcats, mink, weasels, feral housecats, hawks, owls, and snakes.

Breeding and Reproduction
Varies among species, ranging from 2 to 5 litters per year, with 2-9 offspring per litter.

Typically thick, brushy areas. Western species often hang around areas with rocky outcroppings where they can bask and seek protection from predators.

Telltale Sign
In snow, look for tracks and droppings. Without snow, look for droppings and maze-like networks of trails and tunnels coursing through thick brush and grass. When feeding on woody plants, rabbits sever the twigs and stems at sharp angles.The cut faces show teeth marks.

Cottontails will also girdle small trees, leaving them barkless for the first couple feet.  Keep in mind that cottontails seem to leave a disproportionate number of tracks in a small area. What seems like the tracks of ten rabbits in a briar patch might just be two.

Truly excellent, one of the finest of all wild game meats. Can be used for many chicken applications.

Hunting Opportunities
There are several species of cottontail throughout North America with wide availability. Seasons tend to run from fall through winter with varying bag limits due to regional availability. Some states that have extreme cottontail populations have year-round seasons with no limit.

Brody Henderson on His Favorite Off-Season Quarry
“The mountain cottontail subspecies of the cottontail rabbit is an overlooked and underutilized small game animal in my part of central Colorado. These small, mild-tasting rabbits are a welcome change from my venison-heavy diet.

“I first started chasing them here a few years ago, after taking notice of numerous cottontails while hunting deer in sage, pinyon and juniper country. I enjoy still-hunting a great deal, and while quietly sneaking up on mule deer I would sometimes notice a cottontail sitting motionless under a juniper only a few feet away. I reasoned that with a scoped .22, I might reliably bag a few of these rabbit after the close of the big game seasons.

“The first thing I learned was that sage flats and grassy meadows are rarely worth hunting even if they are littered with rabbit tracks. Because cottontails are targeted by a range of predators, including raptors, they are primarily nocturnal and shy away from open country during daylight hours. I found that significant overhead tree cover was the key for stalking rabbits during the day.

“The best hunting areas are in pinyon and juniper groves with a little ground cover such as sage, serviceberry, or oak brush. Rock piles are also attractive habitat. Mornings and late afternoons are the best times to find the rabbits, as they are often lounging above ground near their holes. It’s best if you can wait until there’s an accumulation of snow. Fresh tracks make locating productive areas much easier.

“Additionally, seeing rabbits is much simpler because they are silhouetted against a white background. Sunny days after a snowfall are the absolute best, because cottontails will bask on the warm, sunny sides of trees and rocks.

“Killing a few rabbits for the pot with a rimfire might seem simple, but in fact it requires patience and good woodsmanship.  You need to learn to hunt at a snail’s pace, using your eyes more than your feet. I believe running is actually a last resort for rabbits, and these mountain cottontails seem less likely to bolt when approached slowly.

“Look for dark, compact, ball-shaped objects on the ground beneath trees and rock ledges, and also for the pinkish colored ears and black eyes. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll start to see the bunnies in plenty of time to place a careful shot with your .22.

“Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t always over if the rabbit runs. Sometimes, following an initial sprint, they will stop near some cover to assess the danger. Rather than shooting at a running bunny, I prefer to wait to see if they give me a stationary target. I keep my scope adjusted to its lowest power for quick shots that average ten to thirty yards.

“Give spot and stalk rabbit hunting a try. Because the season runs through late winter, it keeps me in hiking and hunting shape long after big game seasons end and my shooting skills stay sharp. Since the habitat mountain cottontails live in overlaps with the winter range of deer and elk, I get to see a lot of animals. That, and some tasty rabbit stew helps to take the sting out of waiting until the following September to once again hunt by beloved big game in the mountains.”

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