Native rabbits find 'fantastic site' in Scotland

Buy Photo Tim Martin/The Day Dave White, second from left, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, tours the property of Tom McAvoy of Scotland on Thursday. McAvoy has created a natural habitat for the cottontail rabbit.

Scotland - Often, when he walks the paths of his 115-acre former dairy farm in the morning or early evening, Tom McAvoy sees rabbits hopping between dense thickets that were once pastures and hayfields.

For the first couple of years after he bought the property, McAvoy didn't think much about the rabbits, let alone consider that the small, shy creatures might be a species in need of his help.

"We always saw rabbits," said McAvoy, senior vice president at Dime Bank in Norwich and former first selectman of Sprague who moved to Scotland in 2008. "We didn't know the difference between Eastern cottontails and New England cottontails."

Over the past couple of years, though, McAvoy has become something of an expert on the subject of New England cottontails, the six-state region's only native bunny. The more suburbanized Eastern cottontails, brought to the area by hunters in the first half of the 20th century, far outnumber their native cousins, and the New England cottontails are now candidates for the federal endangered species list.

Connecticut, however, has a core population of New England cottontails that wildlife officials are relying on to restore the species throughout its historic range. That's where McAvoy's property comes in.

"It's a fantastic site for the rabbits," said Ted Kendziora, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, one of the agencies working on various projects to repopulate New England with the native bunnies.

On Thursday, the important part McAvoy's property is playing in New England cottontail restoration efforts came to center stage. Dave White, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service's national office, walked the paths through the property, which McAvoy has renamed "Cottontail Farm," along with officials from the Fish & Wildlife Service and other agencies working cooperatively on cottontail restoration.

Kendziora said a project on McAvoy's land is the first public-private partnership for the New England cottontails under the Working Lands for Wildlife program, a joint initiative of the NRCS and the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Ray Covino, NRCS conservationist for Windham County, said the visit by his agency's leader is an important distinction. White spent two days in Connecticut, visiting five other sites from East Canaan to Woodstock with various other NRCS projects.

At McAvoy's property, White had a chance to meet "one of the most progressive landowners, at one of the sites with the highest population of New England cottontails," Covino said. "The Scotland-Canterbury area is one of the hot spots for New England cottontails."

The project, McAvoy explained, involves making his property an even better habitat for cottontails than it already is, giving the threatened species a safe haven where they can thrive and, possibly, produce offspring that will spread to populate new areas.

Already, McAvoy's property has been the source of three New England cottontails that were trapped by state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection wildlife staff and taken to the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence for a year-old captive breeding program. It is the first time New England cottontails have been successfully bred in captivity and released into the wild. Three other rabbits trapped for the breeding program came from Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown and North Stonington.

Travis Goodie, contractor for the Wildlife Management Institute who works with the state DEEP, said McAvoy's property first came to his attention after a University of New Hampshire study of the distribution of the rabbits found several areas in eastern Connecticut, including Bluff Point State Park in Groton and open space lands in Canterbury and Scotland, as having large New England cottontail populations.

Goodie was beginning a study of the rabbits to learn more about their range, habitat use, survival and movements, hoping the findings would contribute to the restoration programs. McAvoy's property seemed a likely place to start, he said, because its size, habitat mix and location near other open space properties meant it would be a likely spot to find New England cottontails.

"So I knocked on his door, and he agreed to let us trap and put radio collars on rabbits on his property," Goodie said, adding that a future phase of his research involves developing a population estimate. "It's all part of the regionwide effort for the species. It's very good rabbit habitat there."

Over the next couple of years, Goodie returned to the McAvoy property frequently to collect data from the radio collars. He also recommended McAvoy's property to Fish & Wildlife Service officials looking for a private partner for their Working Lands for Wildlife program.

McAvoy said when he was first approached about the program, he was skeptical. True, he had no plans to develop his land, but he had been thinking about clearing the overgrown thickets rather than expanding and improving them, as the NRCS and Fish & Wildlife officials were proposing.

"My initial reaction was, 'You want to spend my tax dollars to do what?'" he recalled. "But then I started to understand the impact it would have, not just for the rabbits, but for many other birds and butterflies and other species. Now I'm really excited about it. This is a model that could be duplicated elsewhere."

Seven months ago, McAvoy signed a habitat improvement agreement with the NRCS and Fish & Wildlife Service. The agencies developed a plan to remove invasive species such as autumn olive, honeysuckle and multiflora rose and replace them with native species such as viburnum, dogwood, chokeberry, raspberry and blackberry that provide better food and shelter for the rabbits. The plan divided the property into small sections that would be done one at a time, to minimize disruption to the resident rabbits, and described how it should be maintained to keep it good rabbit habitat.

In May, the program paid for contractors using track skidders to uproot the invasive shrubs and regrade the first section. Native milkweed and grasses now spread across the field, attracting many birds and butterflies, and native shrubs will be planted there in the fall. NRCS and Fish & Wildlife officials taught McAvoy how to use his own equipment to maintain the property, and he moved large rocks into piles for "bunny houses."

"We'll plant some raspberry bushes around them, and they'll provide cover," McAvoy said.

In the next phase, groups of trees in a forested section will be thinned to create areas for shrubs and other small vegetation the rabbits favor. McAvoy plans on doing future maintenance himself, keeping invasives at bay and ensuring the land doesn't revert to forest. Loss of the "early successional" habitat the rabbits favor is one of the main culprits in its decline.

"If you can't walk through it, and you can't drive through it, and it has a lot of briars, it's good rabbit habitat," said Goodie, the DEEP contractor. "The rabbits can run through it easily, but most of their predators can't."

j.benson@theday.com

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