Of the two rabbit species that may be hunted in Missouri, the eastern cottontail is the most common. Cottontails are well distributed throughout Missouri, and they provide fun, challenging hunting opportunities to novice and experienced hunters alike. Rabbits are prolific breeders, and numbers fluctuate from year to year and place to place. Overall, rabbit numbers have been declining since the mid-1950s due to loss of habitat. However, cottontails can be found in all 114 of Missouri’s counties. They prefer brushy cover, dense weedy areas, and thickets. Rabbits feed almost entirely on plants. Preferred foods include grasses, wheat, and white clover. During heavy snow cover, they eat buds, twigs, bark, and sprouts to survive.
Swamp rabbits are a little larger than cottontails with shorter, rounder ears, and the tops of the hind feet are reddish-brown. Swamp rabbits are localized to lowlands along stream banks and drainages of the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. Hunters can recognize their presence in an area by their unusual habit of leaving droppings on logs and stumps. Swamp rabbits are good swimmers and can escape predators by diving into water and paddling away. This species’ numbers have been declining due to loss of lowland hardwood forests and swamps.
One reason for rabbit hunting’s popularity is its simplicity. Some people use dogs, while others merely walk the fields and meadows — either way, it’s fairly fundamental. No decoys, game calls, camouflage clothing, or high-tech gadgets are needed to provide a sporting pursuit and a tasty meal.
Although some rabbit hunters won’t take to the field until the first good snow, rabbit numbers are typically higher when the season starts in October than during the cold weeks of January and early February. Fall is the season when rabbit populations and protective cover are both at their highest levels. As habitat availability is reduced by winter weather and crop harvests, rabbit populations shrink.
Good cottontail habitat includes well-distributed protective cover, a good year-round food supply, and a safe place for nesting. Brush piles can be created by loosely piling brush over rocks, old culvert pipes, or other unused equipment. Keeping the brush open at the ground level allows for freedom of movement. Place piles in close proximity to other cover such as briers, fencerows, or ungrazed pastures.
Landowners in southeast Missouri can improve habitat for swamp rabbits by protecting bottomland hardwood forests from clearing and replanting areas to native tree species. These rabbits also need upland refuge to escape flooding. Again, creation of brush piles and dense vegetation increases habitat for swamp rabbits.
Though it may seem surprising, heavy hunting pressure does not greatly affect rabbit populations. Rabbits, like most small game, have high annual mortality (about 80% per year) whether they are hunted or not. If rabbits are not hunted, their populations are usually affected by other factors like parasites, disease, or other predators.
Rabbits are prolific breeders, producing 3-4 litters of 3-8 young each year! If one pair of cottontails experienced no mortality, they could produce up to 350,000 rabbits in just 5 years! Rabbits become sexually mature at two to three months of age, so populations can quickly increase with good habitat conditions. Abundant rainfall this spring has produced thick vegetative cover that rabbits use, resulting in local rabbit population booms across the state.
Cottontails are abundant on many conservation areas. Below is a list of selected areas that that have good cottontail populations. For more detailed information about an area, visit the Department’s Conservation Area Atlas.
Rabbits often flee from predators in a zig-zag pattern and can reach speeds of up to 18 mph!