I had a chance to pick the brain of Marc Puckett recently, the Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. His insights into rabbit biology and hunting should be of interest to hunters who pursue cottontails anywhere they are found, but especially Old Dominion sportsmen. Here’s what Marc had to say.
GVO: Are rabbits available widely throughout the state, or are some regions superior to others?
MP: Rabbits are widely available, with no part of the state having none. Hot spots tend to vary. Some years the southwestern mountains seem to be favorable. But what I see in most years is that the tidewater and the piedmont–with typically larger acres of timber cut-over in regeneration, providing more cover, and commodity crop farming still doing well in many places–have the highest rabbit harvests. But more telling than total harvest is the fact that the daily hunter success rate is higher in those regions. The bottom line, though, is that rabbit hunters throughout Virginia should have no trouble finding a few rabbits to hunt. And it does not take many to make a good day of hunting.
GVO: Are rabbits or squirrels more popular among small game hunters?
MP: I suspect squirrels are slightly more popular due to their habitat being just about everywhere you go. And they’re also easier to hunt without dogs.
GVO: Have rabbits become more nocturnal in recent decades because of large clean-farming practices with less “edge” or brushy habitat available for escape cover?
MP: I am not aware of any evidence to suggest they have become more nocturnal over time. But like deer, when pressured, cottontails can become more nocturnal on a localized basis.
GVO: What type of habitat or vegetation should hunters focus on if they’re trying to “jump up” rabbits without a dog?
MP: I used to jump-hunt rabbits as a kid before we had a good dog, and I still sometimes go out with a dog that is not a real rabbit dog and do some jump hunting. On cold winter days, I like to focus on sunny hillsides protected from wind with an ample supply of blackberry thickets and broomsedge grasses. I often find rabbits in their “forms” out in the grassy areas, but near cover. The trick is to hunt slow, stop often, and kick cover patches.
GVO: Any other specific plant species to focus on, besides those you just mentioned?
MP: Rabbits eat an enormous variety of plants. In winter they especially like sumac stems and it’s common to find the bark eaten off numerous sumac shrubs in a thicket, which are also often found near blackberry thickets.
GVO: What is the average life expectancy of a cottontail?
MP: Many rabbits do not live one year. Less than one-fourth make it to two years of age, and very few live in excess of three years. But they make up for that by being highly productive, which is an adaption to offset these high losses. Up to half of the newborns will reproduce themselves before they are one-year old. Rabbits can have 3-7 litters of 3-6 young each per year.
GVO: What is the population trend for cottontails?
MP: Our long term surveys indicate stability to perhaps a slight decline, depending on which survey is observed. Overall I suspect there is a slight decline due to habitat loss.
GVO: Is tularemia a danger to hunters? What precautions should they take handling and dressing out rabbits?
MP: Tularemia is always fatal to infected rabbits eventually, and can be an important mortality factor in some years. It can be transmitted to humans readily, but wearing rubber gloves while cleaning rabbits greatly reduces the chances of contracting it. The rabbit’s liver should be inspected, as tularemia is indicated by numerous small white spots on the liver. If a rabbit’s liver is covered with fine white spots it should be discarded.