The association of rabbits with Easter makes it the perfect time to talk about the real deal here in Florida. One might think there would be more but there are only two species of wild rabbits occurring in the Sunshine State: the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and the Marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris). It’s common to see both in the evening and early morning hours but do you know how to tell the difference?
Marsh rabbits are smaller and darker in color than their cottontail counterparts and live mostly around watery habitats like fresh and brackish marshlands, wet prairies, and flooded agricultural lands. Adapted to wetland environments, they are strong swimmers and can even dive underwater. Marsh rabbits have short, rounded ears, small legs, and tails that are barely visible. They are nocturnal and prefer to stay hidden during daylight hours in dense vegetation like cattails, hollow logs, and abandoned burrows of other animals. One of the most distinguishing features of the Marsh rabbit is its ability to walk on all fours, like a cat. And though they can hop like any other rabbit, this type of gait makes them more agile in dense vegetation. Marsh rabbits are strictly herbivores, and their diet consists mostly of aquatic plants. Breeding is year-round but peaks in December through June.
The Eastern cottontail is the species we see more frequently here on the Treasure Coast, especially around neighborhoods. They are larger and lighter in color than their aquatic cousins, with longer ears, poufy tails, and light fur on their undersides. They also sport a little white blaze of fur on their foreheads. Most active around dusk and dawn, adult cottontails are less vulnerable to winged predators because of their size and therefore not quite as shy. They can be seen foraging in open areas and their diet is slightly more diverse including include bark, twigs, leaves, fruit, buds, flowers, grass, seeds, and a very occasional arthropod. Cottontails also breed year-round, but February through September is peak season.
Now you know! Whichever kind of bunny you happen to encounter in our area, enjoy them from a distance and don’t interfere with them. Feeding them will only expose them to predators unnecessarily and lead to increased mortality rates. Additionally, wild rabbits of any kind do not make good pets and, while all that cuteness might be tempting, it is not a good idea. All wild rabbits, regardless of age, are hard-wired to remain on the ground and safely distant from larger animals including humans. Anything other than that will always be perceived by these animals as a threat. No amount of care or food can tame a wild rabbit. The best way to love wild bunnies is to appreciate and enjoy the experience of watching them hop about their business and, leave them to it.