Eastern cottontail rabbits are frequently described as crepuscular, meaning active at dawn and dusk. The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington, an online site documenting various plant and animal species found on the real nature trail at that school, describes how the eastern cottontail’s “crepuscular (dusk and dawn) pattern of foraging activity is augmented in the summer by a nocturnal time expansion.” A Cornell blogger, recent article in The New York Times, and WelcomeWildlife.com all repeat the same information: Eastern cottontails are crepuscular.
Field guides tend to be more generous with the time window for eastern cottontails, but still focus on dawn and dusk. For example, in Mammals of the Great Lakes Region, Allen Kurta states that they “forage at any time of day or night, but perhaps more commonly just after sunrise or near sunset.” Perhaps?
Having internalized this information for years, I was a little surprised when my first game camera rabbit showed up near midnight. Was the common belief that bunnies are crepuscular just a stereotype reinforced by frequent repetition?
Recognizing that one photo of one rabbit does not a pattern make, my student Alyssa Valentyn got quite a bit more systematic about rabbit timing and compiled records showing exactly when eastern cottontails were active this past summer. The answer? Fully 60 percent of her 39 rabbit photographs showed up on game cameras at night time, another 20 percent showed up in day time, and the remaining 20 percent of observations happened in the stereotypical crepuscular dawn/dusk time frame. Students Olivia Richards and Schyler Schewe are following up with winter observations and finding similar patterns.
I’m not ready to declare that all eastern cottontails everywhere are nocturnal, but I’m convinced that rabbits on the Saint Michael’s College campus are certainly not crepuscular. So when do you see rabbits on your game cameras? If you are interested in participating in a bit of citizen science, click here to send me your rabbit observations: Where and when did the rabbits appear? I’ll keep track of the list and see if there’s a broader pattern of midnight bunnies.