Here comes Peter Cottontail / Hoppin’ down the bunny trail / Hippity hoppity / Easter is on its way
So goes the mid-20th-century song composed by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins and performed most famously by cowboy crooner Gene Autry.
But today there are fewer actual bunny trails left for Sylvilagus transitionalis, aka the New England cottontail rabbit. Since Autry’s hit struck No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1950, the smaller cousin of the more common Eastern cottontail has seen its habitat dwindle 80 percent, according to the Wildlife Management Institute.
Today the tiny hopper, the only native rabbit species found east of the Hudson River, can be found outside of petting zoos only in pockets of new-growth forest between Maine and southeastern New York state.
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And it’s not just land development that’s encroaching on animal’s grazing grounds; it’s the trees, too. The rabbit dines on the type of grasses that pop up after forest fires raze and open up land to newer growth forests. Older forests block out the light to the ground that provides the rabbit’s food source – tender new shoots.
Now the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Resources Conservation Services are trying to keep the animal off the endangered species list by promoting new-growth forests, a problematic move that could restrict hunting and land use, according to the Associated Press.
The efforts aren’t restricted to helping the little guy; restoring so-called shrub lands would also do wonders for songbirds and snakes, as well as a popular indigenous (and delicious) hunting target: the wild turkey.
For more about how the efforts to expand the habitat of the New England cottontail, click here.