Cottontail

The New England cottontail. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS PHOTO / November 25, 2013)

This is a wild bunny alert: Our New England cottontail rabbit is in trouble.

It won't be much of a surprise to learn that we're to blame. Perhaps it will lessen the guilt to know state and federal environmentalists — and a few conservation-minded landowners — are now working to save our native bunnies.

And they're doing it in part by using a program designed to provide hunters with more wild game to shoot.

Which is fine with Tom McAvoy, who happens to like hunting.

McAvoy's 115-acre farm in the little eastern Connecticut town of Scotland is one focus of a combined federal-state effort to provide more of the brushy, thickety landscape favored by our furry native cottontails.

A vice president at Dime Bank, McAvoy bought the property about six years ago. He says his original plan was to bulldoze some of the overgrown fields, bring back some of the pastureland for a few cows, and keep the rest of the farm as open space for his kids and grandkids to enjoy.

McAvoy was a little taken aback when state environmental officials offered to provide federal funding for a project to improve the cottontail habitat on sections of his farm.

"My first reaction was, 'We're spending taxpayer dollars on what?'" he laughs.

Since then, McAvoy has learned a lot about these New England rabbits and the reasons why we should be trying to save them. (He even calls his land "Cottontail Farm.")

Environmentalists argue that saving the New England cottontail is part of the attempt to fight back against the influx of alien species and preserve at least some of our region's natural mix of plants and animals. Help our cottontail to come back, they say, and you also help the vegetation and predators that evolved with the rabbit.

The first thing to know about the New England cottontail is that it's not the same rabbit most Connecticut people see on their lawns or nibbling at the veggies in their gardens. Those furry, long-eared buggers are most likely members of the Eastern cottontail clan, a cousin species to our New England bunnies.

It's not easy to tell the two types of rabbits apart, unless you do a DNA test or measure their skulls.

Experts say a goodly number of Eastern cottontails often have a star-like white mark on their foreheads, which New England cottontails lack. But if there's no mark, the two species can look "almost identical," according to the Wildlife in Connecticut Notebook, published by Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

"We see a lot of rabbits around here," says McAvoy, "but I couldn't tell the difference."

Our native New England cottontails once roamed the scrub woods and brushy areas of our region from the Hudson River Valley all the way to Maine's Atlantic coast.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Eastern cottontail was imported from the Midwest, presumably to improve the prospects of local hunters looking to bring home something for dinner.

Our New England rabbit continued to hold the upper hand through the 1930s. The dynamic changed as farmland went away, replaced by woodlands and suburbs. Today, the Eastern cottontail, which thrives on lawns and golf courses, is far more numerous.

Back in 2000, Connecticut environmentalists began collecting information on the two cottontail species' status. They got samples from hunters, live-trapped the little beggars, picked up bunny roadkill, and tested rabbit poop.

The results showed cottontails in 115 of Connecticut's 169 cities and towns. Eastern cottontails showed up in 94 percent of those communities, while the native New Englanders could be found in only 23 percent of those towns.

In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed the New England cottontail was in enough trouble to be considered a candidate for "threatened or endangered" status as a species.