Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: After sharp decline, New England cottontail population bouncing back
ALTHOUGH I have seen an Eastern cottontail rabbit several times, to the best of my knowledge I have never seen the smaller New England cottontail. Back in the 1960s, according to a species profile published by the N.H. Fish & Game nongame species department, the population of the New England cottontail was distributed throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, two-thirds of Vermont and along the Connecticut River Valley into New York, as well as the lower half of New Hampshire and the very southern tip of Maine, perhaps all of York County. Today, the current distribution map shows the New England cottontail is found just on the seacoast of Maine and New Hampshire, a little spit of territory that looks to be around Derry/Nashua, and in a couple spots in southern New England.
It is a sad story, I feel, that a species that was once well-distributed when I was a kid could be so sparsely distributed just a few decades later. I would be inclined to say that most drops in wildlife populations are directly related to the ever-increasing human population. And while humans, as usual, seem to be to blame for the current scarcity of the New England cottontail, it was not encroaching housing development but our changing use of the non-“developed” landscape that has been to blame. When New Englanders abandoned the hardscrabble farming of this rocky region and fled to the Midwest where soils are rich and tillable, the cleared lands left behind began their relatively immediate march toward reforestation.
In the interim, what is known as “successional forest” — that in-between period of cleared and forested land — is perfect habitat for the cottontail, both Eastern and New England. So during that successional period, the rabbits thrived. As the forest matured, the critters changed to those that thrive in the forest.
My first knowledge about the New England cottontail’s plight came when I took the Coverts Cooperators’ training back in 1998. Focused on wildlife habitat and now part of UNH Cooperative Extension, if you have not done the Coverts Cooperator training, I highly recommend applying. It ranks up there as one of the most fun and educational long weekends I have had. We took interpreted forest walks, enjoyed a guided night walk through the woods at Bear Brook State Park, and listened to naturalists and academics. Part of my graduating class was Ben Kilham, the black bear expert from Lyme, and Nancy Cowan, master falconer, both of whose work and dedication I admire.
One of the academic talks during our Coverts Cooperator training was about the New England cottontail. The lecturers (I wish I could remember their names but I cannot) discussed field research that they and some graduate students had conducted in trying to learn why the New England cottontail was unable to thrive as well as the Eastern cottontail. Was it their smaller size that made them easier prey? Were they simply not as fast as the Eastern cottontail? No, what they found was surprising even to them — the problem seemed to lie with the smaller rabbit’s smaller eye size. They could not see a predator in enough time to reach cover in the decreasing thick shrub that is their best habitat.
Conservationists got to work and addressed this decline. The population of New England cottontails has rebounded to a noticeable degree. And earlier this month, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, was going to be in Dover to release specimens raised in captivity on private land with the appropriate habitat. The rabbit was removed as a candidate for being named an endangered species, and the success of their rebound has been attributed to protection efforts. I certainly hope this is the right thing to do.
So the next time you see logging being done or hear about a preservation group trying to save an old farmstead with its agricultural landscape, remember the New England cottontail and the value of the creation and preservation of this little bunny’s habitat.
- - - - - -
The other night coming home along a dirt road I saw the largest skunk I had ever seen in my life snuffling along the side of the road. And on a short run from my house recently, I heard a rustling in the tree overhead and stopped to see a very black something in an upper branch. At first I thought it was a black bear cub. Then I decided these were feathers and thought it must be either a turkey or turkey vulture. Then I heard rustling in the tree on the other side of the road and realized there was another of whatever it was. And then one of the birds vocalized and took off flying down the roadway and I realized that I was looking at the largest ravens I had ever seen in my life. Everything seems supersized these days!
- - - - - -
Lastly, I can’t help but mention last Sunday night’s total lunar eclipse. What a spectacular event. We had great viewing from our Adirondack chairs by the barn. I was intrigued by what I could or could not hear in the night. Several jets crisscrossed the sky. An animal I could not identify and could not see with my headlamp kept squealing in the stone wall along the road. A barred owl hooted just once. As the eclipse slipped closer and closer to total, I heard a crow in the tree behind the barn. Just before the moon went blood-red in total eclipse, a truck stopped alongside our pond with its headlights glaring, while the driver, who wasn’t interested in the eclipse, was at least following the new law and not texting while driving. He went on his way with apologies when we went out and asked if he needed help.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.