Skip to content

Ask Maine Audubon: That ‘rabbit’ you’ve seen is likely a snowshoe hare

A New England cottontail rabbit hops away after being released at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve on Sept. 30, 2021, in Wells. A joint effort between public and private landowners and several government agencies is helping to restore scrub brush habitat to allow the endangered species to recover. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

One of the state’s lesser-known mammals is also one of its most threatened. The New England cottontail is listed as an endangered species in Maine, known to occur only in six towns since their population has plummeted because of habitat loss. Among the efforts to protect them, the state has reintroduced captive-raised individuals to a few sites where habitats are being restored or maintained specifically for this species. I’ve received a few questions about this effort, mostly rooted in a lack of understanding about where they occur or even what species they are, so I’d like to try to answer those questions by shedding light on these rare rabbits.

First of all, it is worth noting that New England cottontails are Maine’s only true rabbit. We also have snowshoe hares, which are likely the “rabbit” that you’ve encountered in Maine, but as the name implies, those are “hares” instead of “rabbits.” While both in the order Lagomorpha, the split is at the genus level, with snowshoe hares in the genus Lepus, and the cottontails are Sylvilagus. Hares tend to be larger, with bigger hind legs, hence the other part of the name in our species, the “snowshoe” – a helpful adaptation for running around on snow in the winter (and also helpful for avoiding predators like lynx). Snowshoe hares can be found all over the state, especially in coniferous forests, while New England cottontails are restricted to scrubby habitats; they need a dense understory found in early successional forests.

This specialized habitat preference of the New England cottontail is a major restriction on where it can occur, making it very unlikely that you’ll encounter one. In 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced the formation of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, “dedicated to conserving and managing shrubland and young forests for wildlife in New England and eastern New York.” Along with the New England cottontail, this new national wildlife refuge provides important habitat for other species like American woodcocks and monarch butterflies.

It is worth noting that New England cottontails are different from the abundant Eastern cottontails that you can find around the rest of New England, but fortunately not in Maine. Eastern cottontails are generalists, occupying most shrubby areas and especially grasslands, and can unfortunately outcompete New England cottontails in the areas where they overlap. Eastern cottontails are native to the US, but weren’t originally native to New England, only thriving here after being introduced from states like Kansas and Texas.

Readers submitting concerns about the reintroduction efforts of New England cottontails are likely more familiar with Eastern cottontails, and some of the damage they are known to do around gardens. But again, the endangered New England cottontail is such a habitat specialist that you needn’t be concerned. We only have around 300 New England cottontails left in Maine, and less than 3% of the state has the habitat they need, so it is a good thing that action is being taken to save what little we have left.

HELP FOR MIGRATING BIRDS

Mid-May is peak timing for many of our migrating songbirds, especially the neotropical migrants like warblers, tanagers, and vireos. With this influx of millions of birds coming north for the summer to breed, it is a good time to be reminded of a few things we can do to help make their passage safer, even right in our own backyards.

First, on the evening that I wrote this, there were about 102,000 birds migrating over Cumberland County (see birdcast.info for nightly reports). I want to make a plug for keeping your lights off and windows safe for birds. Bright and upward facing lights can be disorienting for migratory birds and should be shut off at night. Treating large windows with an ultraviolet reflective material (that birds can see) is another helpful step to keeping birds from striking structures that they cannot see otherwise. These threats from windows and lights are especially pronounced around cities. You can learn more about our work and how to help by visiting maineaudubon.org/advocacy/birdsafe.

Second, I have to remind everyone that outdoor cats are the No. 1 anthropogenic cause (meaning: caused by humans) of bird mortality, accounting for more than a billion deaths each year in the US Feral cats are responsible for much of this, but still 25% is from “owned” cats that are allowed to roam outside. Please consider keeping cats indoors, or at least during this time when so many birds are trying to migrate to their breeding grounds.

Finally, it’s important to get outside and enjoy these birds. If you are near Portland, come join one of our free daily guided walks at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland, meeting at 7 am Monday through Friday at the ponds in the back of the cemetery, or our free weekly guided walks at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth on Thursdays (also at 7 am). These are great opportunities to see some amazing warblers, the “gems of the North American forests,” and appreciate what we’re all working to protect. Wherever you are, try to get out this month and enjoy the spring migration sensation.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about backyard birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug leads free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 7 to 9 am, at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.


Use the form below to reset your password. When you’ve submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

SHARE THIS POST

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.