The New England Cottontail is difficult to tell apart from the more common Eastern Cottontail, unless the rabbit is captured. Scientists typically perform genetic testing on rabbit scat (droppings) to determine which species are present.
The New England cottontail has disappeared from many historical locations including Warren County, the Catskills, and Long Island. It was last documented in Rensselaer County in the 1960s (Benton and Atkinsin 1964). Its decline throughout its range resulted from forest maturation, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and competition with eastern cottontails (Litvaitis et al. 2006). In New York, it is now limited to a few fragmented populations in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties.
The species was last found in Rennselaer County in the 1960s, and has declined elsehwere. It is now limited to a few fragmented populations in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties (Litvaitis et al. 2006). Pellet surveys conducted since 2009 have turned up new locations for New England cottontails but have not substantially increased the size of the known range in NY.
The historical record includes specimens from Warren County to the north, west of the Hudson River in the Catskills, and south to Long Island, but recent records from these locations are lacking. The current distribution is thought to be restricted to the east side of the Hudson River and includes fragmented populations in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties.
Changing habitat, fragmentation of forest lands, and competition with the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) have likely contributed to the decline of this species and remain as threats (Litvaitis 1993, Tash and Litvaitis 2007).
Identify potential habitat within the historic range of the species, modify this habitat to increase its suitability, and reintroduce New England cottontails to these locations (Litvaitis and Villafuerte 1996, Tash and Litvaitis 2007).
Comparisons of habitat within extant and historical sites are necessary to see if there are significant differences between the two that may have led to the decline of the New England cottontail (Tash and Litvaitis 2007).
The New England cottontail is an early-successional species, preferring open woods, disturbed areas, shrubby areas, thickets, and marshes (Hamilton and Whitaker 1979). Specimens collected in Rensselaer County in the 1960s were from second-growth hardwoods with hemlocks at elevations greater than 1000 feet, and scattered swampy areas with stands of spruce and conifer plantations (Benton and Atkinson 1964). Current populations in southeastern New York can be found in isolated habitat patches that have undergone some form of disturbance such as agricultural fields and edges, and occasionally, brushy edges of transportation corridors (Tash and Litvaitis 2007).
Various range maps show the former distribution including the southern tier counties, Catskills, and most of the eastern New York counties. Most records are old and actual specimens are known only from Suffolk, Warren, Nassau, Westchester, Rensselaer, and Schoharie counties. Recently, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Endangered Species Unit has conducted survey efforts (skull collection, live-trapping, fecal analysis) from potential counties of occurrence and has discovered extant populations in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties (Litvaitis et al. 2006).
The New England cottontail previously was widely distributed in New England, extending north to Rutland, Vermont, southern New Hampshire, southwestern Maine, and southwest through eastern New York. The range has been reduced and fragmented. Currently the species is restricted to boreal/montane regions in southwestern Maine, central and southern New Hampshire, perhaps extreme southern Vermont (Litvaitis 1993), Massachusetts (except southeastern part), northern Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York east of the Hudson River (Chapman et al. 1992). Remnant populations are apparently restricted to five regions: 1) seacoast region of southern Maine and New Hampshire, 2) Merrimack River Valley of New Hampshire, 3) a portion of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 4) eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, and 5) portions of western Connecticut, eastern New York, and southwestern Massachusetts (Litvaitis et al. 2006).
The New England cottontail closely resembles the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), but it tends to be a little smaller and darker. The ears are shorter and rounder, with the outer edge possessing a broad, black stripe which does not blend gradually into the browner color of the ear as in the eastern cottontail. There is usually a black spot between the ears, as compared to the white spot found on the forehead of the eastern cottontail. (Chapman 1975, Godin 1977, Litvaitis et al. 1991)
True identification can only be made thrugh DNA analysis or skull characteristics (Hamilton and Whitaker 1979, Ruedas et al. 1989).
Breeding season is January to September, peaking from March to July. The gestation period is 28 days. Litter size is genrally 3-5 or occasionally up to 8, with up to several litters per year. Litters are smaller but more numerous than in the eastern cottontail, resulting in about the same productivity. Most individuals first breed in their second season, but 18% of pregnancies are in juveniles (Dalke 1942, Hamilton and Whitaker 1979).
In the spring and summer, New England cottontails feed on grasses and herbs including goldenrods, crabgrass, and chickweed. In the fall and winter, their diet consists of seedlings, bark, twigs of gray birch, red maple, and aspen, and shrubs including blackberry, dewberry, and willow (Dalke and Sime 1941).
New England Cottontails are most active at dawn and dusk. The breeding season is typically from March to September.
The time of year you would expect to find New England Cottontail active and reproducing in New York.
New England Cottontail
Sylvilagus transitionalis (Bangs, 1895)
Buffum, B., T. J. McGreevy Jr., A. E. Gottfriend, M. E. Sullivan, and T. P. Husband. 2015. An Analysis of Overstory Tree Canopy Cover in Sites Occupied by Native and Introduced Cottontails in the Northeastern United States with Recommendations for Habitat Management for New England Cottontail. PLOS ONE 10(8): e0135067.
Cheeseman, A. E., S. J. Ryan, C. M. Whipps, and J. B. Cohen. 2018. Competition alters seasonal resource selection and promotes use of invasive shrubs by an imperiled native cottontail. Ecology and Evolution 8:11122-11133.
Benton, A.H. and T. Atkinson. 1964. Notes on the New England cottontail in eastern New York. N.Y. Fish and Game J. 11(2):154-156.
Chapman, J. A., et al. 1992. Systematics and biogeography of the New England cottontail, SYLVILAGUS TRANSITIONALIS (Bangs, 1895), with the description of a new species from the Appalachian Mountains. Proc. Biol. Soc. Washington 105(4):841-866.
Chapman, Joseph A. 1975. SYLVILAGUS TRANSITIONALIS, New England Cottontail. Mammalian Species 55:1-4.
Connor, P.F. 1971. The mammals of Long Island, New York. NYS Museum and Science Service Bull. 416. 78 pp.
Dalke, P.D. 1942. The cottontail rabbits in Connecticut. Bull Conn. Geol. Nat. Hist. Surv. 65. 97 pp.
Dalke, P.D., and P.R. Sime. 1941. Food habits of the eastern and New England cottontails. J. Wildl. Mgmt. 5:216-228.
Godin, A. J. 1977. Wild mammals of New England. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 304 pp.
Hall, E. R. 1981a. The Mammals of North America, second edition. Vols. I & II. John Wiley & Sons, New York, New York. 1181 pp.
Hamilton, W. J., Jr., and J. O. Whitaker, Jr. 1979. Mammals of the eastern United States. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, New York. 346 pp.
Litvaitis, J. A., D. L. Verbyla, and M. K. Litvaitis. 1991. A field method to differentiate New England and eastern cottontails. Trans. Northeast Sec. Wildl. Soc. 48:11-14.
Litvaitis, J. A., J. P. Tash, M. K. Litvaitis, M. N. Marchand, A. I. Kovach, and R. Innis. 2006. A range-wide survey to determine the current distribution of New England cottontails. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34: 1190-1197.
Litvaitis, J.A. 1993. Response of early successional vertebrates to historic change in land use. Conservation Biology. 7(4):866-873.
Litvaitis, J.A. and R. Villafuerte. 1996. Factors affecting the persistence of New England cottontail metapopulations: the role of habitat management. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 24(4):686-693.
Litvaitis, M. K., J. A. Litvaitis, W.-J. Lee, and T. D. Kocher. 1997. Variation in the mitochondrial DNA of the SYLVILAGUS complex occupying the northeastern United States. Canadian Journal of Zoology 75:595-605.
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2023. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Checklist of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals of New York State, including their protective status. Nongame Unit, Wildlife Resources Center, Delmar, NY.
Ruedas, L. A., R. C. Dowler, and E. Aita. 1989. Chromosomal variation in the New England cottontail, SYLVILAGUS TRANSITIONALIS. J. Mamm. 70:860-864.
Tash, J.P. and J.A. Litvaitis. 2007. Characteristics of occupied habitats and identification of sites for restoration and translocation of New England cottontail populations. Biological Conservation. 137(4):584-598.
US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2004. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; a 90-day finding on a petition to list the New England cottontail as threatened or endangered. Federal Register. 69(125):39395-39400.
Information for this guide was last updated on: June 28, 2019
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2023. Online Conservation Guide for Sylvilagus transitionalis. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/new-england-cottontail/. Accessed January 30, 2023.