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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s rabbit season opens in early November, extends into new year

For many Kentuckians a trip afield in search of rabbits is one of the first species hunted as a youngster. Rabbits are fun to hunt, especially with a pack of beagles, and are great eating, when fried, baked or grilled

Kentucky’s rabbit season opens in early November and extends into mid-winter, running concurrently with quail season.

The state is divided into two management zones:

Rabbit Hunting (Photo courtesy Game and Fish Publications)

• In 92 central and eastern Kentucky counties, the eastern zone, the season is 90 days long. The season dates are November 1-11, 2022, and November 14-January 31, 2023.

• In 28 western Kentucky counties, the western zone, the season is 89 days long. The season dates are November 14-February 10, 2023.

The daily bag limit is four rabbits.

Kentucky rabbit population Trends

Fluctuations in Kentucky’s rabbit population are tracked by the Rural Mail Carrier Survey and Hunter Cooperator Logs.

For more than 60 years the Rural Mail Carrier Survey has been used to forecast the outlook for the upcoming hunting season, monitor the population, and estimate rabbit productivity.

Mail carriers record rabbit observations as they travel their rural delivery routes during the last full week of July (6 delivery days). Survey cards provide space for observations of rabbits for each of the survey days, the length of the route, and the total miles driven.

The most meaningful data derived from the survey is rabbits seen per 100 miles.

According to the 2021-2022 Kentucky Rabbit Report, the central Kentucky and eastern Kentucky regions had eight percent increases in rabbit observations in 2022, while the Bluegrass region had a 20 percent decrease.

Running Rabbit (KDFWR)

Rural mail carriers drove 147,734 miles on 418 trips and observed 2,980 rabbits, for a statewide observation rate of 2.02 rabbits per 100 miles traveled, which represents a two percent decrease over the 2021 Rural Mail Carrier Survey.

The Hunter Cooperator Log debuted in 1995. It’s a voluntary program in which hunters are asked to record data including date of hunt, county hunted, hours hunted, number of hunters, number of dogs, and number of eastern cottontail, swamp, and Appalachian cottontail (seen, killed, and wounded), on a diary-type hunting log.

Hunters update the log as the hunting season progresses, and mail it to KDFWR when they are finished hunting for the season. Data collected from the logs helps biologists monitor rabbit population trends in Kentucky.

According to the 2021-22 Kentucky Rabbit Report, hunter cooperators last season took 645 trips afield in 42 counties. They hunted 2,264 hours, jumped 3,881 rabbits and harvested 1,585 rabbits, 1,573 of which were eastern cottontail rabbits. Hunting effort peaked in late December.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

2022-23 Rabbit season outlook

The outlook for rabbit season is upbeat.

“I believe the season will be similar to last season, but could be better,” said Cody Rhoden, small game program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that reproduction and survival of young rabbits was good this spring. In late summer more cover was available to rabbits in fields since late cuttings of hay weren’t economically feasible to farmers due to drought conditions.

“Don’t overlook public lands,” said Rhoden. “There are large tracks of land (with good habitat), open to rabbit hunting.”

Overall, rabbit numbers have declined since the late 1960’s. This is attributed to habitat loss because of land use changes and the cleaner agricultural practices used to grow small grains — corn, soy beans and winter wheat.

According to an article posted on the Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association website, Kentucky farmers expect to harvest 32.8 million bushels of winter wheat during 2022 from about 400,000 acres of grain fields.

Three species of rabbits in Kentucky

Kentucky has three species of rabbits, but only the eastern cottontail is found statewide.

Populations of swamp rabbits and Appalachian cottontails are much smaller and only found regionally.

All three rabbit species offer unique hunting opportunities.

• The eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, is present in all 120 Kentucky counties. In fact, the eastern cottontail is the most abundant of the nine species of cottontail rabbits found in the U.S.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Photo from KDFWR)

Historically, the highest populations have been in the Knobs/Outer Bluegrass Region and the Eastern Coalfields. This is because rabbit numbers are tied to early stages of plant succession, which includes areas where timber has been harvested, or where soil has been disturbed by agriculture.

Adults weigh two to four pounds and their coloration is brownish gray, with black and white hairs.

Cottontails are quite agile, able to run up to 18 miles per hour and can jump 10 to 15 feet.

• The swamp rabbit, Sylvilagus aquaticus, is the largest of the three species, and is found in western Kentucky, associated with river bottom wetlands, and islands in the lower Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Swamp rabbit numbers have declined because of the loss of habitat. There are isolated pockets with higher numbers, but no means is this rabbit abundant. Populations tend to fluctuate greatly from year to year.

River bottom hardwoods, that periodically flood, and canebrakes, are preferred habitats. Swamp rabbits have been found as far east as the lower Green River, but they are more common in the Purchase Region.

Swamp Rabbit (Photo by Lindell Dillon, Flickr Commons)

Swampers have a home range of 11 to 27 acres. They are at home in the water, with webbing between their toes to help them swim and walk through mud. They have been known to hide underwater with only their nose above the surface.

Adults can weigh up to six pounds and distinctive coloration includes rust-colored feet and a black spot between their ears.

Swamp rabbits run in a zigzag pattern and in a burst of speed can reach an unbelievable 48 miles per hour.

• The Appalachian cottontail, Sylvilagus obscurus, lives in the same habitat as the ruffed grouse.

It is strictly a woodland species but is often found around abandoned hill farms or strip mines.

Very similar in coloration to the eastern cottontail, the Appalachian cottontail is the smallest of the three species. It can only be differentiated from the eastern cottontail by details on their skulls. It was not described in the scientific literature as a separate species until 1992.

This rabbit has been found in some counties of the Cumberland Plateau, as far west as Lincoln and Boyle counties, but not much is known about its distribution in eastern Kentucky.

Like the ruffed grouse, numbers of Appalachian cottontail rabbits have declined because forests in eastern Kentucky’s mountain counties are growing into maturity, with less open land in shrubs, undergrowth, and saplings.

The Appalachian cottontail is found at high elevations from Pennsylvania to South Carolina and is closely related to the New England cottontail, Sylvilagus transitionalis.

To access more detailed information about rabbit season in Kentucky visit the KDFWR Small Game and Furbearer Hunting and Trapping website.

For many Kentuckians who grew up rabbit hunting, the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the prime time for a trip afield. Get out and do it again. Take along a friend or family member and relive your Kentucky small game hunting heritage.

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