Four or five blind, naked young grow rapidly and leave after 14 days. By the age of one month the young are weaned and independent.
Hares and jackrabbits adopt a different strategy. After a 36-day gestation period, the young are precocial at birth. They are born fully furred with eyes open and leave the nest within hours of birth.
Meanwhile, mother cottontails keep busy. They mate shortly after giving birth, so they are pregnant with a second brood while nursing the first. A single female can breed five or six times in a year and produce up to 35 babies. This is a major reason rabbits can withstand the annual toll taken by predators and hunters.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of rabbit biology is their diet. Strict vegetarians, cottontails enjoy succulent greens such as dandelion leaves, clover and grasses as well as the bark of woody species such as raspberry, apple, black cherry and sumac. They can consume up to 40 percent of their body weight every day. Evidence of rabbit browsing is easy to recognize. Their sharp incisors clip woody twigs cleanly and leave behind a distinct diagonal cut; deer break twigs off and leave behind ragged edges.
A vegetarian diet, however, is hardly unique. What makes rabbits different is they are also coprophagous -- they eat their own droppings. Cottontails increase digestive efficiency by recycling food that passes through their system.
Rabbits excrete two types of droppings. After a meal first passes through the digestive system, rabbits pass soft, green "food" pellets, which they reingest as soon as they are dropped. This also minimizes their exposure to predators because they can leisurely consume droppings from the safety of dense cover.
During the second trip through the digestive system, vitamins and other nutrients that were not absorbed the first time are assimilated. The familiar piles of dark, round pellets you find in the backyard are the true end products of rabbit digestion.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or email sshala...@aol.com.