Improving Habitat for Tennessee Rabbits
By Roger Applegate
One of Tennessee’s sporting traditions through the years has been rabbit hunting. At the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, we get questions on how to improve rabbit habitat.
Tennessee is home to three species of rabbits, the eastern cottontail, swamp rabbit, and Appalachian cottontail. The eastern cottontail is the most abundant and widespread of the three species and is literally to be found in every Tennessee county. The swamp rabbit occurs largely in West Tennessee counties west of Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River and is associated with swamps and river bottomlands. The complete distribution of the Appalachian cottontail is little known other than it is mainly found in the higher mountains of East Tennessee and possibly onto portions of the Cumberland Plateau and mountain area.
This article will focus on the eastern cottontail since it is the most common and the rabbit species that most Tennesseans will find on their land. Anything I say about habitat will work for swamp rabbits or Appalachian cottontails if you happen to be in areas where these rabbits reside.
Eastern cottontails are less specialized than either of the other Tennessee rabbits. They occur
in nearly any type of cover as long as it is possible to escape by running. Such habitats are referred to as early-successional and are also similar in many respects to habitat needed by quail. However, unlike quail, cottontails are so adaptive that they can also persist in suburban neighborhoods around dense human populations and their associated dog and cat pets.
Quail generally do not persist well in such areas. This distinction is the primary reason quail are decreasing in numbers while cottontail rabbits are at least stable in number from year to year. Also, cottontails require less space than quail to survive year-round, roughly 900 to 1,000 acres or more per covey of 11 quail. Cottontails persist in far smaller areas because they are more able to adapt to human-dominated land.
Specifically, cottontails can live in overgrown fields that have scattered patches of brush, old pastures, open woodlands that have sufficient brush to hide in, and as mentioned earlier, suburban yards as long as there are buildings to hide under, patches of shrubbery, and other hiding places.
Rabbits are not food limited. In other words, it is not necessary to provide food either artificially with feeders or by planting in order to sustain cottontails on your property. Such a practice is not justified and will not result in an increase in rabbits.
Another practice that has not shown evidence of increasing rabbit populations in the development of brush piles. Several generations of wildlife managers have assumed that piling up brush, old Christmas trees, and the limbs and tops of trees leftover from timber harvest (slash) provides a substitute for live naturally occurring thickets. Unfortunately, there has been no confirmation of this. In fact, it is believed that brush piles, which are known to be used by skunks, raccoons, and other small predators, may, in fact, be death traps to rabbits or quail that try to hide in them.
However, since we lack a lot of good evidence of this, I would conclude that making brush piles on your property is if nothing else a neutral recreational activity for landowners. It doesn't require a large investment of money to make them as long as you have some brush, tree branches, or old Christmas trees that can be piled up, and it's a good way to dispose of them. A quick computer search will come back with several recipes for brush piles so I won't dwell on that any further.
Another practice that has been promoted is to bury a section of clay or cement tile partially in the ground to provide a burrow for rabbits. This practice, while being novel and seemingly beneficial, has also never been tested to provide confidence that it improves rabbit numbers on a property. In most cases, sufficient burrows are provided by groundhogs.
The absolute best habitat for rabbits on any property is to provide them with old brushy fields, thinned out woodlands, thinned pine plantations, brushy overgrown pastures, and any similar locations. As noted earlier, food patches are not necessary to improve habitat for rabbits. In fact, for the most part, it isn't necessary to plant anything for rabbits. This makes the cost
of having them on your property very low. The greatest cost will be in cutting a few trees to open up woodland or some disking of old pastures or fields to increase the diversity of plants available for food and cover. Also, prescribed fire applied to fields, pastures, and woodlands can be of benefit in maintaining the proper habitat.
If crop fields are being abandoned; it is only necessary to allow the fields to fallow and then maintain a diverse mixture of the plants that naturally grow in the field. This can be done with disking and fire. Invasions by kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, and other invasive plants can be kept at bay with selective use of herbicides.
Small patches of Japanese honeysuckle need not be worrisome as long as they are kept small. If they begin to spread they will need to be controlled.
Old pastures need only be allowed to grow up in scattered trees, brush, and other plants in order to be productive rabbit habitat. Here again, disturbance by fire and by disking in strips can be a help. Conversion of pastures to native warm-season grass cover, while not necessary, can provide excellent habitat for rabbits, but remember that grass alone will not provide for the needs of rabbits or for quail. Other native plants will need to be incorporated into such plantings in order to provide proper habitats as will clumps of brush. Much useful information on native warm-season grasses can be found at https://utextension. Tennessee. edu/publications/PageslnativeGrasses.aspx.
Here you will find some key references on native warm-season grass establishment in Tennessee.
For those wishing to maximize rabbit hunting opportunities on their lands, I recommend consideration be given to separating patches of rabbit cover with mown strips to provide places where clear shots can be made at rabbits being coursed by beagles. Bush hogging or disking will work fine for maintaining such shooting lanes. Although some landowners do it, it is not necessary to spend money on planting such areas. Just keep them low.
The by-word here is to keep it simple. Emulate the natural habitat that rabbits are adapted to and you will have them. If you choose to plant anything, stick with native plants because they are less likely to cause problems with management. We spend a lot of time and money these days trying to control or eradicate plants that were intended to provide habitat benefits. Japanese honeysuckle is an example of one of these. In fact, popular media still promotes this plant for deer. It is a serious mistake to do so because the nominal benefits if there really are any, are lost when the vines take over everything.
For information on a wide range of habitat management topics, I recommend logging on to TWRA's habitat page http://tn.gov/twra/ habitatmgmt.html. Here you will find lots of information on habitat management including valuable references on managing habitat for rabbits and native plants.
Roger Applegate is a Wildlife Disease Biologist for TWRA and has extensive experience in managing wildlife diseases. Roger came to TWRA from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and holds his bachelor's degree from Western Illinois University and masters from the University of Illinois.