Tracking The Elusive New England Cottontail

New England Cottontail
New York’s rarest native rabbit, the New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

 

It is a typical morning at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center (TOEC) in Fahnestock State Park. The sunshine beams through the forest, a chorus of song birds are greeting the day, and 60 elementary school students are making their way to breakfast to fuel up for an active day of learning in the outdoors. Meanwhile, a familiar truck and crew rolls in to begin their workday visiting several small animal traps set in specific locations in hopes that at least one will contain a rabbit, particularly a New England Cottontail.

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) is collaborating with State Parks, and the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct important research about the population decline of native New England Cottontail. Over the past decade, studies have indicated that their numbers have decreased about 50%. The two major factors contributing to the population decrease are loss of suitable habitat, and the expanding range of the Eastern Cottontail. The only native rabbit species east of the Hudson River is the New England Cottontail; however the range of the Eastern Cottontail has been expanding and now overlaps this territory which causes competition for resources. Predation is also playing a role in the decreasing population; part of this research project is keeping an eye on who’s eating New England Cottontails by using trail cameras. These cameras placed in baited locations and use a motion sensor to take pictures when an animal walks by. Different predators are “captured” in a photo as they come to investigate the bait, which shows the species that a present in the rabbit survey area.

Back at the TOEC, the students are gathering to meet with their instructors for their morning lesson, the phone suddenly rings. “We have a rabbit” says the voice on the other end. Flexibility is part of the job description of an outdoor educator, and no one passes up an opportunity to enjoy a teachable moment, especially when it involves a live animal. All plans are dropped for the moment and after a short walk the students quietly approach the researchers who are preparing to identify, collect data, and radio tag the small mammal.

Juvenile
Measuring a juvenile New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Many of students who visit the TOEC are from the New York City area and rarely get to experience being this close to a truly wild animal, and they have a lot of questions such as: “Why is it in a pillowcase?”, “How long are its feet?”, “Is that a baby?” and “What’s That!?”. Their sense of wonder is contagious and the SUNY ESF researchers return the enthusiasm by answering the barrage of questions being hurled at them, while also safely collecting data on their captive rabbit. Measurements are taken, and the data is recorded onto forms and will go into a large database to allow for comparison across the entire northeast. The final step is to attach a small antenna to the rabbit’s back so that the researchers will be able to locate the individual rabbit again through radio telemetry. Now comes the exciting part! The rabbit is released, and in a flash it darts away, immediately out-of-sight, camouflaged amongst the underbrush.

Camouflage
A well camouflaged New England Cottontail. Can you see the antennae? photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Upon reflection, many students will say seeing the rabbit was their favorite part of the week, and they walk away with the feeling of being included in something important. Nothing teaches better than experience; giving students the chance to interact with a living, breathing part of the ecosystem around them. It sure makes for a pretty great day.

Post by Dana Mark, environmental educator at TOEC

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