Small Game Management in Georgia
Rabbits became abundant when early settlers cleared the forests, providing a valuable food source for early Americans and they are still considered an important small game animal in the United States today. In Georgia, they rank third (behind doves and squirrels) in small game hunting popularity.
Rabbit hunting was very popular in Georgia during the early 1960s when about 117,000 hunters harvested 1.27 million rabbits annually. Wildlife Harvest Surveys show a steady decline in rabbit hunting since the 1960s with 50,237 hunters harvesting 338,597 rabbits during the 1998-99 hunting season. This decline resulted from several factors including loss of rabbit habitat because of "clean" farming practices that remove protective cover and urban expansion that eliminate cover and limit hunter access. Deer hunting has become increasingly popular and competes with small game hunting. The leasing of hunting rights for other primary uses also limits access to many acres of good rabbit habitat.
Four species of rabbits live in Georgia. The most common is the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). This rabbit has dense brown to gray fur on its back with a white underside and tail. There is usually a white spot on its forehead. The sexes are similar in appearance for all rabbit species. Cottontails are found throughout the state. Their habitat includes upland areas associated with agricultural fields, pine woodlands and brushy areas.
The Swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus), often called a "cane cutter," is the largest rabbit in Georgia. It has black to rusty-brown fur with a white underside. Swamp rabbits are found in bottomland hardwood and beaver pond habitats along rivers and creeks in the Piedmont.
The Marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris), is the smallest rabbit found in Georgia. It has a blackish to reddish-brown back with a brownish-gray underside, not white as in the other three species. Its ears and tail also are smaller. Marsh rabbits usually are found in open marsh areas associated with the Coastal Plain and coastal river systems.
The Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus) is similar in size and appearance to the Eastern cottontail. However, instead of a white spot on the forehead, they often have a black spot between the ears. Appalachian cottontails are confined to high mountain elevations. Georgia is at the southern end of Appalachian cottontail range and sightings of this rabbit are rare. The Appalachian cottontail is included on Georgia's Protected Wildlife list
Reproduction - In Georgia, rabbits begin breeding after the first warm days in February and typically continue until early November. Gestation averages 28 days for cottontails, 33 days for marsh rabbits and 37 days for swamp rabbits. Before giving birth, the female selects a dry location to build a nest. Early spring nesting habitat for cottontails is characterized by grassy areas with vegetation less than eight inches high. Later nests are commonly located in hay fields and areas of native grass. The female cottontail digs a nest cavity in the ground and lines it with grass and fur. Swamp rabbit's fur-lined nests are built on top of the ground under low-growing bushes or in plant debris, such as fallen limbs, using dried weed stalks.
Rabbits in Georgia are usually one year-old before they breed. They can have 3-7 litters per year and typically select different nest locations for each litter. A female rabbit will breed on the same day that she gives birth. Litter sizes range from 3-5 young. They are born blind and helpless, but develop quickly. Their eyes open in about one week, and they leave the nest about two weeks after birth. The mother returns to the nest to nurse the young at dawn and dusk; but once the young leave the nest they are on their own. Female rabbits produce an average of 20 young per year. More males are born than females, and males remain more numerous in the adult population.
Mortality - Approximately 80 percent of the rabbit population dies each year. A major cause of this mortality is predation. Rabbits rank high on the list of preferred foods for many predators. Predation is normal for most wildlife populations, and rabbit reproduction makes up for these losses if adequate escape cover is available.
Rabbits are host to several species of ticks, fleas, warbles and chiggers. These parasites seldom cause death in rabbits. However, they can infest rabbits to such a degree that they become easier for predators to catch or diminish their reproductive condition.
Warbles, or "wolves," are larvae of botflies that lay eggs around holes and burrow entrances. The eggs become attached to the rabbit's fur and are ingested when the rabbit cleans itself. They hatch inside the rabbit and the larvae migrate through the rabbit's body to the skin, often in the neck area. The larvae often exceed one inch in length as they grow under the skin, feeding on body fluids. When mature, the larvae emerge and drop to the ground, pupating to become a fly. Warbles also may come out of dead rabbits in a hunter's bag. The presence of warbles may cause the hunter to discard the carcass, even though the meat is unaffected and quite edible.
Many kinds of roundworms and tapeworms also infect rabbits. The species most important to hunters is the canine tapeworm. Some rabbits ingest tapeworm eggs while feeding. The eggs hatch in the intestines and the larvae travel into the body cavity where they form a clear, bladder-like structure with a white center. This formation, called a cysticercus, rarely harms the rabbit. The larvae mature into adult worms after they are ingested by mammalian predators, like coyotes or foxes, which have eaten an infected rabbit. Some hunters allow their dogs to eat "innards," or viscera, from harvested rabbits. If the rabbit is infected with canine tapeworm larvae, the hunter may be promoting infection in his dog.
Fleas and ticks may carry the bacteria that cause Tularemia (rabbit fever). Infected rabbits are sluggish and usually die within 10 days of getting the disease. Humans can become infected when they handle sick rabbits or eat undercooked meat. The disease can be life-threatening to humans, and people should not handle sick rabbits. Hunters should wear rubber gloves when cleaning rabbits, apply iodine to cuts and scratches incurred during the cleaning process and thoroughly cook rabbit meat.
Weather also can impact rabbit populations. Heavy rains during the nesting season can drown young rabbits. Extended drought, which decreases the availability of young and tender vegetation, can reduce pregnancy rates. Drought also forces rabbits to search longer and in less protected areas for food, making them more available to predators.
Thousands of rabbits are killed each year by vehicles. Peak roadside use coincides with springtime breeding activity and an increase in herbaceous food found along these roadsides.
Food Habits - Rabbits eat parts of over 100 species of plants. They prefer herbaceous plants whenever available. Woody plants are used mainly during the winter months. However, marsh rabbits make more year-round use of woody vegetation than other species.
Winter foods include honeysuckle, lespedeza, blackberry, greenbrier, a variety of grasses and dried vegetation. Bark, twigs and buds from sumac, black cherry, willow, holly and dogwood also are eaten. Agricultural crops consumed during the winter include rye, wheat, alfalfa, clover, corn, peanuts and ryegrass. Cottontails may damage fruit orchards by eating the bark of fruit trees. Buds of seedlings in pine plantations also may be eaten during the winter.
Foods during warmer months include a variety of sedges, grasses and other herbaceous plants. Important species include paspalum, panic grass, plantain, dandelion, crabgrass, ragweed, croton, clover and lespedeza. Agricultural crops eaten during the summer include clover, alfalfa, soybeans, peanuts and garden vegetables.
Rabbits pass two types of pellets from their digestive system. Hard, brown, fecal pellets are undigested plant material. Soft, green, food pellets containing vitamin B and other nutrients are reingested by the rabbit. Eating fecal material, called "coprophagy," allows rabbits to more efficiently absorb nutrients from their diet.
Rabbits do not require surface water for drinking. They obtain moisture from rainfall, dew and the herbaceous vegetation in their diets.
Behavior and Movement Patterns - Home ranges of cottontails are usually less than 11 acres. Males have larger home ranges than females, and adults have larger home ranges than young cottontails. Home ranges overlap when preferred food is less abundant in late fall and winter. Adult female home ranges usually do not overlap during the breeding season. Dispersal into areas of suitable habitat is usually by younger rabbits that have not bred.
During spring and summer, cottontails use herbaceous vegetation for feeding and resting. Open areas with shorter vegetation are used at night. They use thicker vegetation containing tangles of vines and low-growing, thorny bushes for resting during the day. Cottontails use woody vegetation more for resting sites during the fall and winter when herbaceous vegetation is dead. Fall populations in good habitat range between 1-2 rabbits per acre.
Home ranges of swamp rabbits vary from 4-17 acres. Densities range from 1 rabbit per 1 1/2-18 acres. Home ranges for marsh rabbits are reported as less than one acre and their densities may exceed two rabbits per acre.
Habitat Requirements - Areas with a mixture of grassy and brushy vegetation provide excellent habitat for cottontails. Because rabbits rate high on the menu of many predators, quality escape cover located close to a food source is the key ingredient to maintaining a high rabbit population. Old fields, utility right-of-ways, shrubby areas between fields and woods, hedgerows, shelter belts and young pine plantations provide good habitat.
Swamp and marsh rabbits, as their names imply, are always found close to water. Swamp rabbits inhabit wooded swamp and marshy areas along rivers and streams. Suitable swamp rabbit habitat has thickets of cane, privet, blackberry, honeysuckle or greenbriar for escape cover. Logs, fallen trees and downed limbs provide shelter. Small forest openings and the edges of beaver ponds provide additional food and cover.
Marsh rabbits inhabit open, marshy areas containing scattered shrub thickets. They often are the major occupants of land next to open marsh along Georgia's coast. Brackish marshes containing cord grass, juncus, spartina and panicums are heavily used. As with cottontails, maintenance of quality escape cover and abundant food sources are essential for high populations of both marsh and swamp rabbits.
Agricultural Fields for Cottontails - Agricultural fields are improved for rabbits by allowing edges and corners to grow into thickets of blackberry, honeysuckle, plum or other dense, low-growing vegetation. Similar vegetation, grown as hedgerows across fields, provides cover strips that break up large fields. Plum, blackberry and honeysuckle thickets should be encouraged in these strips. Hedgerows and cover strips provide travel lanes that allow rabbits access to more of the field.
Nesting cover and food production are improved by creating field borders. These field borders are areas 30-60 feet wide where natural vegetation can develop. Annual weeds and grasses grow during the first summer, followed by perennial and woody plants in following years. Mowing or disking part of this field border every 2-3 years keeps vegetation at the desired stage and prevents woody plants, like sweetgum and pine, from becoming too large.
Preferred foods also may be planted in or adjacent to field borders. Disking provides similar benefits to mowing and promotes the growth of additional food plants like ragweed and crabgrass. The quality and quantity of food for cottontails improve when these managed areas are fertilized.
Natural vegetation around fields, overgrown fence rows, ditch banks and wet areas provide food and cover for cottontails. When protective cover becomes too thick, strips should be mowed or disked through overgrown vegetation to stimulate new growth.
Cottontails often use brush piles for cover, especially during the winter when the availability of protective herbaceous vegetation has declined. Brush piles should be 5-8 feet high and 10-16 feet wide, placing larger logs and debris at the bottom. If equipment is used, keep from pushing dirt into the pile to allow rabbits easier access. Brush piles should be located near a preferred food source and within 300 feet of other cover. A brush pile only lasts a few years and should be replaced before its value for rabbits is lost. Brush piles can quickly provide protective cover for rabbits where it is lacking. However, they cannot replace the value of more permanent, live vegetative cover.
Pastures grazed by livestock are poorly suited for rabbits. Livestock compete with rabbits for preferred food plants, especially legumes, and they trample and graze vegetation until it is too sparse to provide protective cover. Pastures can be improved for rabbits by fencing livestock out of adjacent woodlands and allowing fencerows and field corners to develop protective cover.
Fescue, a cool-season grass, is planted in many pastures throughout Georgia's Piedmont. Fescue's dense growth competes with more desirable plants and restricts the movements of young rabbits. A fungus that grows on fescue causes reproductive problems in cattle and may affect other animals that eat it. Although rabbits seldom eat fescue, they may resort to this grass if other foods are not available. Fescue fields that remain idle for a number of years and succeed into blackberry, broomsedge, vetch and other preferred plants provide good habitat for rabbits. In areas where fescue occurs, serious rabbit management includes an aggressive program to convert pasture from fescue to native vegetation.
Woodlands for Cottontails - Cottontails are found in a variety of woodland habitats. Pine or mixed pine-hardwood forests have the most potential for rabbit habitat improvement.
Timber stands should be maintained at densities that allow food and protective cover to grow in the understory. Thinning pine stands to a basal area of 50-65 square feet per acre allows enough sunlight for the understory to develop. If higher timber densities are desired, rabbit habitat can still be improved by creating small, scattered openings that can develop into shrub-thicket areas.
Pine stands reach their maximum potential for wildlife when thinned and prescribe burned. Burning helps control hardwood competition, releases nutrients back into the soil and stimulates the growth of food and cover plants for rabbits. The best time for burning is betw
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