Category Archives: Birding

Hopping into Critter Cards: Eastern Cottontails

The Eastern Cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, is the most common rabbit in North America. They range from Canada to South America and from the east coast to the Great Plains in the central United States. Living predominantly at the edge of open areas such as fields or farms, cottontails are generalists, able to survive in a wide variety of habitats. They can even thrive close to human activity, often popping up in lawns and sheltering under shrubs.

While the Eastern Cottontail has variety in their coat color, nearly all individuals sport a reddish patch on their nape (the back of their neck), and every individual carries its namesake: the white, cotton-ball-like tail. Distinguishing the Eastern Cottontail from its rare cousin the New England Cottontail is difficult. The only coat difference is that 50% of the latter have a dark spot on their foreheads. Normally, distinguishing the two species requires examination of the skull structure.

As Eastern Cottontail eating seeds; note the red patch on the nape. Photo by Dave Larson.

The Eastern Cottontail is in the family Leporidae, which is known for rodent-like teeth and delicate lattice bones in their skull. There has been heavy debate on where Leporidae belongs on the phylogenic tree. Previously in the Order Rodentia, a study confirmed they should be classified separately based on the structure of their teeth. This study was met with strong resistance, but was so highly supported, it prevailed. An additional study looking into the genetics of the Eastern Cottontails suggested they may be more closely related to some primates rather than rodents!

An Eastern Cottontail showing its namesake: their tail. Photo by Lisa Hutchings.

A healthy Eastern Cottontail population density should be around three to five rabbits per acre, kept in check by their natural predators. Left to their own devices, cottontails overpopulate, leading to overgrazing, disturbing gardens to the point of destruction, a high risk of disease, and out-competing other species who need the same habitats. Natural predators, such as coyotes, foxes, birds of prey, and snakes help control the cottontail population.

Eastern Cottontail on alert. Photo by Frank Vitale.

A female Eastern Cottontail may have three-to-four litters in a season. Breeding season runs from February to September. Each litter will be weaned within three weeks, out of the nest and independent within seven weeks, and ready to breed at three months old. This is an important ability, as cottontail rabbits play a crucial role in the food web. Rapid reproduction helps to support predators that rely on the Eastern Cottontail as a food source.

Eastern Cottontail with a small, white dot on its forehead. Photo by Joy Marzolf.

The milk of a female Easter Cottontail is the most protein-rich milk currently known, and is also quite fatty, to boot. It has a whopping 12% of fat and 10% of protein (compare to humans at 3% fat and 0.8% protein), making it rich and full of essential nutrients for the newborns, or kits. This potent milk allows females to nurse their young for only a couple minutes a day. The rest of her day, she will spend foraging and sheltering away from her kits. Because rabbits live on the ground, in shallow scrapes, this is essential for kit survival.

Eastern Cottontail foraging. Photo by Joy Marzolf.

The Eastern Cottontail practices coprophagy. This means that they are one of the species that consume cecotropes. Cecotropes are fecal pellets that have passed once through the digestive tract of rabbits. However, these pellets are expelled and consumed again for a second pass through the digestive system. Cottontails thus increase the extraction of nutrients. So… they are essentially eating their own scat, for their health.

What can you do for rabbits? Plant a few extra veggies in your gardens and let those rabbits have a snack! While it is true that they can become destructive when not kept in check, a rabbit taking a carrot top or beet greens from your garden is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. “One to harvest, one to grow!

Learning Tools from Mass Audubon

Read all about cottontails.

Learn about rabbits in your yard and garden.

Looking for More Resources and Activities?

Watch this video to learn what to do if you find a rabbit nest in your yard. If you care, leave it there!

Read about cottontails and use the data to do some “bunny math.” Great for all ages, teachers, and parents.

Explore iNaturalist and learn about cottontails.

Learn with this lesson about rabbits, and then take the quiz (may require online subscription).

Dig deeper into the diversity of hares and rabbits.

Watch this kid-friendly video about rabbits from around the world.

Watch this video of a cottontail kit being rehabilitated.

Print this page for more quick facts about cottontails.

Submissions

Eastern Cottontail art by Hadley, age 8

“We have them in our backyard. The other day I was working in the front garden when all of a sudden 6 or 7 of them FLEW out of there!” – Facebook participant

Domestic bunny that has a white tail and black ear lining, similar to Eastern Cottontails. Photo by Facebook participant.
Three bunnies all together. The actually rabbit, in the forefront, is a young Eastern Cottontail. Photo by Facebook participant.
“We saw this one in our neighbor’s yard this morning!” – Facebook participant

What’s Next?

What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

Connect With Us

Would you like to be added to Lisa Hutchings’ VIP email list? Receive special resources such as nature slideshows and educational tools for at-home learning. Send an email to lhutchings@massaudubon.org requesting to be added to the VIP list.

Thanks to our Critter Card Fans

Love the cards. They will be great in the classroom. – PreK teacher

 It is great to have your Critter Cards as a weekly surprise.  It makes us feel so connected to Joppa Flats Education Center.  Congrats to you and your team for always stepping up and delivering in any and all circumstances. – parent

Millipedes March into Critter Cards

There are roughly 1,400 species of millipedes in the US and Canada, and about 7,000 worldwide. Depending on the species, millipedes can live seven to ten years and grow to between 0.1 and 12 inches. Millipedes may look like bugs, but are actually arthropods, more closely related to crayfish, lobster, and shrimp than they are to any insect. Their hard, outer shell, or exoskeleton, is smooth to the touch, segmented, and supports them since they have no backbone. Millipedes breathe through spiracles, or holes along the sides of their body.

Some sources say that millipedes are decomposers, but the correct term is detritivores, meaning they live on a diet of decomposing vegetation, and as they process their food, they pass the nutrients back into the soil.

Millipede – Lisa Hutchings

The body of a millipede is made up of segments, with each segment having two pairs of legs. Millipedes can have dozens of body segments when they are full grown, but they have only six segments when they hatch from their eggs. Some species hatch as a larvae and will have no legs until after their first molt.

With each molt they go through, millipedes shed their exoskeleton and emerge with more body segments, legs included. This process is known as anamorphic development. Before they molt, millipedes will hide in a safe place, as the process can take up to a few weeks. After they’ve molted, they will be unable to use their legs until their new exoskeleton has hardened. During this time they will eat their old exoskeleton, which helps provide them with nutrients while they are unable to travel far.

Millipede with ground matter – Lisa Hutchings

When millipedes reach sexual maturity, somewhere between two and five years of age, they will come together to mate. The female will take up residence in a protected location where she will lay her eggs. Depending on the species, a female may lay a single egg, 100 eggs, or give birth to live young. Most millipedes lay somewhere between 20 and 30 eggs and will typically stay with them to incubate. Massachusetts’ most common millipede, the American Millipede, will lay one single egg in a nest of regurgitated food. The female will coil herself around her egg and incubate it until it hatches a few weeks later. Once the egg hatches her job is done, and she and her offspring part ways.

Millipede curled up in defense – Lisa Hutchings

When threatened, millipedes coil their bodies into a spiral. Tergites, the hard plates on the back of millipedes, act as armor to protect their soft underside. Some species will step it up a notch by releasing chemicals from their skin. Ozopores, or stink glands, may emit a repelling smell and taste to discourage predators. Other species have a secretion that causes skin irritation or blisters when handled.

Be careful, respectful, and curious when you observe these little critters.

Did you know? There is scientific suggestion that millipedes may have been the first animals to live on land. This theory is fueled by the discovery of Pneumodesmus newmani, a fossil found in Ireland from 428 million years ago. It is the oldest fossil that shows spiracles for breathing air.

Looking for more Resources and Activities?

Read this lesson for kids about millipedes then quiz yourself with this online quiz.

Read about and design an experiment for home or online classrooms.

Watch this video to learn about millipedes. Great for middle school – adults.

Watch this short video about observing millipedes in the classroom.

Watch this short video about millipedes, great for PreK – Elementary.

Read a poem by Mass Audubon’s teacher, Susan Edwards.

For fun watch this video of a millipede marching to a song.

Submissions

Millipede drawing – Hadley, age 8

What’s Next?

What would you like to learn about from your backyard?

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

Connect With Us

Would you like to be added to Lisa Hutchings’ VIP email list? Receive special resources such as nature slideshows and educational tools for at-home learning. Send an email to lhutchings@massaudubon.org requesting to be added to the VIP list.

Thanks to our Critter Card Fans

You emphasis on the plants and animals people can find in their backyard is perfect for right now.  I love how you make the commonplace  interesting and adventuresome.artist-educator

Just a quick note to say how grateful we are for these weekly cards and all the info that you send along. – parent

Critter Card: American Robin, the Early Bird

American Robins are a familiar member of the thrush family. With its red-orange breast and flanks and dark upperparts, the American Robin is unmistakable once you know who you’re looking at.

Making their homes in a range of habitats, the American Robin is found in open forests, grasslands, your backyard, and cities. Among the earliest avian vocalizers in the spring, you will often hear them singing before dawn and late into the sunset. Their song is heard in 49 states, which is pretty incredible when you realize that we all hear the same familiar spring song signaling warmer weather.

American Robin in habitat – Shelby Vance

American Robins are truly an example of the early bird getting the worm. They eat a range of foods, which include worms (of course!), insects, other invertebrates, and fruit. On rare occasions robins have been recorded consuming larger prey, such as snakes and shrews. In the mornings, robins focus on finding worms and other proteins, and when this activity dies down they shift their focus to fruits in the afternoons. In fall and winter robins switch to predominantly eating fruit, which may allow them to overwinter locally. However, eating enough fermented fruits, as robins will sometimes do, can lead to slight intoxication.

Females and males may be very similar in their appearance, but your best chance at determining sex will be from behavior. A female will be the individual making the nest, incubating, and quietly calling to her male counterpart. A male will sing loudly and display his tail and wings for his mate. Males will also roost with other males and juveniles at night, while females remain with their eggs and nestlings.

Robins nest in April, and during this time they lay unmarked blue eggs. The eggs hatch about 12-14 days later, with juveniles fledging in another two weeks. A successful American Robin pair can raise up to three broods between April and August of the same year. At times this can mean the male caring for fledglings while the female incubates another brood.

American Robin nest – Lisa Hutchings

Want to do something for robins and other backyard songbirds?

  • Consider getting a bird feeder if you don’t have one. Fill it with fruit mix or meal worms to satisfy the diet that robins prefer.
  • Already have a feeder? Consider planting native plants around it to provide natural shelter when predators are about.
  • Don’t use pesticides! Robins are often on our lawns, making them at-risk for pesticide poisoning. Let the robins and other ground foragers take care of your bugs instead!
  • Create a backyard habitat using native bushes, flowers, and other plants. The native plants will attract natural food sources for the robins, bringing them into your yard more often.

Please note our new schedule:
Monday – Critter Card release from Facebook and email.
Wednesday – More resources through email.
Friday – Blog posted.

Learning Tools from Mass Audubon

Learn about American Robins from Mass Audubon.

Watch Mass Audubon’s video about American Robins.

Be Aware! What should you do with a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest?

Looking for more Resources and Activities?

Listen to their calls and songs and practice your own!

Learn more about baby Robins with this video.

Visit Mass Audubon’s April Vacation Virtual Camp: Spring is for the Bird’s page. Activities by grade level.

Participate in Citizen Science projects such as Project Nestwatch, Project Feederwatch, iNaturalist and eBird.

Read this comic about American Robins. Discuss or write about it.

Make a bird’s nest with this Bird’s Nest Stream Project.

Sing “Rockin’ Robin”

Sing along with this Raffi song called “Robin in the Rain”.

What’s Next?

What would you like to learn about from your backyard?

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

Connect With Us

Would you like to be added to Lisa Hutchings’ VIP email list? Receive special resources such as nature slideshows and educational tools for at-home learning. Send an email to lhutchings@massaudubon.org requesting to be added to the VIP list.

Thanks to our Critter Card Fans

You’ve done it again.  Just when I am running out of ideas and wanting to help my daughter out with the home schooling, you came up with Critter Cards. – Joppa Flats volunteer

Thank you for these cards.  I have posted them on our school’s home learning website.  They are very helpful – grade 5 teacher

So nice to see your videos each week! I’m learning from them and also thought I’d make cards for my grandson. – grandparent