Niagara Gazette — The New England cottontail is the only rabbit species native to the region east of the Hudson River. And while it has struggled to deal with the changing landscape, a slightly larger cousin has thrived.
Imported to the region for hunting in the early 20th century, the Eastern cottontail has larger eyes that have enabled it to avoid predators better. It multiplied steadily and is now the dominant species in the Northeast, often popping up on roadsides and in gardens.
For conservationists, protecting the New England cottontail from extinction is worthy in and of itself. But habitat restoration also benefits the dozens of other species that thrive in shrub lands, including songbirds, snakes, deer and turkey.
Tom McAvoy, a landowner in Scotland, Conn., was approached by Fish and Wildlife officials in 2011 about restoring his land to help the New England cottontail make a comeback. Inactive for the past 60 years, the former dairy farm was overgrown with invasive plants that prevented ground vegetation from thriving.
He is now opening up portions of dense forest on his land and planting indigenous shrubs on what he now calls Cottontail Farm. The project's scope is five years, but he said he wants to maintain it beyond that as "a legacy" for his family.
"My brother and sons have been involved in the project," McAvoy said. "It's important for me to teach my grandchildren as well, and keeping them active and involved in the stewardship of the land."
He lamented that a lot of farmland in the area is overgrown and unmanaged.
"I don't think many of us are aware until we get active and involved," he said. "I certainly was not until I got involved."
The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island began breeding the New England cottontail in captivity two years ago. Officials there have already released 38 young rabbits tagged with radio collars into restored habitats in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. They expect to release 100 more later this year.