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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Highly popular among state’s small game hunters, rabbit season set to begin

If you drove down rural backroads in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region this summer, early and late in the day, you likely saw rabbits along the roadsides. That anecdotal evidence suggests it was a good year for rabbit reproduction in the region.

But in fact, roadside observations are one of the two main indices that biologist use to predict if rabbit populations are up, down or stable throughout Kentucky.

This trend data on rabbit populations comes from the mail carrier survey, conducted during six delivery days the last week in July each summer since 1960. It’s a visual survey, as mail carriers note the number of rabbits they observe as they drive their routes.

According to the 2022-2023 Rabbit Report from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), mail carriers drove 144,592 miles and observed 2,735 rabbits, for a statewide observation rate of 1.9 rabbits per 100 miles traveled in 2023.

(Photo courtesy Game and Fish Publications)

Here’s the results from the four regions of the state:

• In the West Region rabbits observed per 100 miles increased from .82 in 2022 to 1.02 in 2023.

• In the Central Region rabbits observed per 100 miles decreased slightly from 2.12 in 2022 to 2.1 in 2023.

• In the Bluegrass Region rabbits observed per 100 miles increased from 2.04 in 2022 to 2.12 in 2023.

• In the East Region rabbits observed per 100 miles decreased from 3.06 in 2022 to 2.52 in 2023.

It should be noted that rabbit populations are highly cyclical, and population levels may vary considerably by region, and county, from year to year, due to weather and other factors.

In early 2023 the weather was usually warm so it is likely to assume that rabbits got an early start breeding and nesting.

The report agreed. “The winter was mild which potentially favored high overwinter survivorship and excellent breeding condition for does.”

The report also noted “Over the last 63 years of this survey, the decline in the rabbit population is evident (21 percent). The overall drop in rabbit numbers since the 1960’s can be generally attributed to habitat loss because of land use changes…cleaner agricultural practices.”

An increase in row crop farming is likely a factor. There’s less land for rabbits, who flourish in early successional habitat — fields overgrown with weeds, and thickets of brush and saplings.

In the September issue of Kentucky Farm Bureau Magazine an article said that the USDA Crop Prediction Statistics included a “corn production increase of 28 percent, soy bean production the highest on record, and wheat production up 35 percent from 2022, with 460,000 acres in production.”

Kentucky’s 2023-24 rabbit season dates

Kentucky’s rabbit season opens in the fall and extends into mid-winter.

The state is divided into management two zones.

In the eastern zone the season dates are November 1-10, and November 13-January 31, 2024.

In the western zone the season dates are November 13-February 10, 2024.

The daily statewide bag limit is four rabbits.

For more information about rabbit season, visit the KDFWR Rabbit Hunting webpage.

The Rabbit Hunter Cooperator Survey

Rabbit hunts per county (Graphic from KDFWR; click for larger image)

This survey, developed in 1995 as a voluntary initiative, is the second indices that gives biologists trend data on rabbit populations. It provides a look at many of the details of rabbit hunting in the state, including harvests, hunter effort and times of the year most hunted during the season.

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 simply keep the log up-to-date as the hunting season progresses, and mail it to the KDFWR when they are finished hunting for the season.

During the 2022-23 rabbit season logs were received from 33 rabbit hunters, which was a 21 percent decrease from the prior season.

Hunters averaged 15 hunting trips throughout the season, with 99 percent of rabbit hunters using dogs. Data was provided from 495 hunts, in 55 counties. Hunters jumped an average of seven rabbits per hunt, an average of 2 rabbits per hour, and harvested 1,288 rabbits.

Kentucky’s three species of rabbits

Here’s some details on the three species of rabbits in Kentucky:

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Photo from KDFWR)

• 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.

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.

Adults weigh two to four pounds and 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 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.

Swamp Rabbit (Photo by Lindell Dillon, Flickr Commons)

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

Swampers have a home range of 11 to 27 acres. They are at home in 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, 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 transitional.

Rabbits are fun to hunt and great eating. For many avid rabbit hunters, the end of modern gun season for deer Thanksgiving weekend signals the start of one of Kentucky’s most popular small game seasons.

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.

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