The eastern cottontail is the most common of the two rabbit species that can be hunted in Missouri. Cottontails are well distributed throughout the state, and they provide fun and challenging hunting opportunities to novice and experienced hunters alike. Rabbits are prolific breeders, and numbers fluctuate from year to year and place to place. Rabbits become sexually mature at two to three months of age, so populations can quickly increase with good habitat conditions. However, despite being in all 114 of Missouri’s counties, rabbit numbers have been declining since the mid-1950s due to loss of habitat. 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. Swamp rabbit numbers have been declining due to loss of lowland hardwood forests and swamps.
One reason for rabbit hunting’s popularity is its simplicity. No decoys, game calls, camouflage clothing, or high-tech gadgets are needed to provide a sporting pursuit and a tasty meal. Some people use dogs (often beagles), while others merely walk the fields and meadows — either way, it’s quite fundamental. Rabbits have a small home range and are reluctant to leave it. After flushing from cover, a rabbit will run away, but eventually circle around back to where it was initially found.
Rabbit hunting is as simple as finding a place with good brushy cover near feeding areas such as hayfields, well-managed pastures and woodlands, or no-till crop fields. Once you have found a place and acquired permission to hunt (for private lands properties), you just need to dress for the weather and have a shotgun or .22 caliber rifle. A 20-gauge shotgun loaded with #6 or #7 ½ shot is ideal, but any gauge shotgun will work.
If you do not have a rabbit dog, or hunt with a friend or family member that does, consider getting one. Hunting with a well-trained dog is not necessary, but it often results in more productive hunts in addition to the companionship.
When hunting without a dog, work brushy cover near feeding areas by walking 5-10 steps, stopping for 10-15 seconds, and repeating until you have worked the cover thoroughly.
If one pair of cottontails experienced no mortality, they could produce up to 350,000 rabbits in just five years!
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