The eastern cottontail feeds on a wide range of plant species. In the summer months, it mainly takes green vegetation such as grasses, clover and various weeds, but in the winter when these are scarce it will also eat woody material such as the bark, stems and buds of trees and shrubs. Like other rabbits and hares, the eastern cottontail produces two types of droppings. The first type, which is soft and green, is re-ingested so that the rabbit can digest it more thoroughly. The second type is small and hard and is not eaten, having had all the nutrients extracted from it (2) (3) (4) (6).
Most foraging activity takes place at dawn and dusk, with the eastern cottontail resting under cover during the day (2) (4). While resting, this species shelters in a ‘form’, which usually consists of a small depression in the soil beneath a brush pile, thicket or dense clump of grass, where the rabbit can remain hidden (2) (3) (4) (6). The eastern cottontail may also shelter in the underground burrows of other animals during harsh winter weather (2) (4) (6).
The eastern cottontail is predated by many different animals, including foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, cats, dogs, weasels and snakes (2) (3) (4) (6). This species usually relies on its ability to remain hidden to avoid predators, but to escape danger it will also suddenly dash away, its white tail flashing (2) (6).
Eastern cottontails within a given area develop a dominance hierarchy, using aggressive and submissive behaviours to avoid physical fights. Dominant males mate with most of the females (2) (3) (4) (6). The breeding season of the eastern cottontail varies depending on the location and the elevation, but generally occurs between January and September (2) (3) (4).
The female eastern cottontail constructs a nest in which to give birth, digging out a small, slanting hole and lining it with grass and leaves, as well as with soft fur plucked from her belly (2) (3) (4) (6). The eastern cottontail typically gives birth to up to 7 young at a time (2) (3) (5) after a gestation period of 25 to 35 days (2) (3). The young eastern cottontails have only a fine layer of fur at birth, and their eyes and ears are closed (2) (3) (4) (6). While the young rabbits are in the nest, the female eastern cottontail only visits briefly to nurse them, carefully covering the nest up to hide them when she leaves (2) (4) (6). The young usually open their eyes at about four to five days old, and are able to leave the nest after about two weeks, although they may occasionally return to it over the next few days (2) (3) (4).
A prolific breeder, the eastern cottontail can become pregnant again soon after giving birth, and each female is capable of raising up to seven or even eight litters each year (2) (4) (5) (6). This species matures quickly and some individuals are capable of breeding in the same year as their birth (2) (3) (4) (6). Despite this rapid reproductive rate, few eastern cottontails survive long enough to breed, and most individuals do not live beyond about two years old (2) (3) (5).