Cottontails are active year round and can been seen at dawn and dusk. They tend to concentrate in favorable habitat such as brushy fence rows or field edges, brush piles, or landscaped backyards where food and cover are suitable. They need cover such as burrows or brush piles to escape predators. Cottontails are rarely found in thick shrubbery or dense forests; they generally spend their entire lives in a 10-acre or smaller area. Lack of food or cover usually is the motivation for a rabbit to relocate. Population density varies with habitat quality, but an average of three to five rabbits per acre is reasonable.
Description of Damage
Rabbits can feed on plants in your orchard year-round. Rabbits damage woody plants by gnawing bark or clipping off branches, stems, and buds. In winter, when the ground is covered with snow for long periods, rabbits can severely damage trees and shrubs. Some young plants are clipped off at snow height, and larger trees and shrubs can be completely girdled.
In addition, the character of the bark on woody plants influences rabbit browsing. Most young trees have smooth, thin bark with green food material just beneath it. Such bark provides an easy food source for rabbits. The thick, rough bark of older trees often discourages gnawing. Even on the same plant, rabbits avoid the rough bark but girdle the young sprouts that have smooth bark.
Rabbit damage can be identified by the characteristic appearance of gnawing on older woody growth and the clean-cut, angled clipping of young stems. Damage occurs primarily within 2.5 feet of the ground. The clipping of small twigs and buds appears as a knifelike slanting cut with no apparent tooth marks. When rabbits gnaw bark, they gnaw in patches. The average width of a cottontail's incisor is 0.1 inch and the average width of the tooth mark is 0.08 inch. Squirrels and voles also gnaw bark, but their tooth marks are much narrower. Distinctive round droppings or rabbit tracks in the immediate area also are good signs of their presence.
In Pennsylvania, rabbits are classified as game animals and are protected as such. The Pennsylvania Game Commission grants exceptions to property owners, allowing them to trap or shoot rabbits outside the normal hunting season on their own property if damage is occurring.