Hunt for rabbit droppings contributes to study of New England cottontails
WASHINGTON, Conn. — Spread out over what used to be a cherry orchard, a small group of “citizen scientists” kept their eyes on a fresh cover of snow Saturday morning, hunting for rabbit tracks.
This patch of brambly woods, the volunteers’ first stop on a stroll across the 500-acre Macricostas Preserve, was off the trail but would be the perfect spot for a rabbit to find some food.
But the tracks would serve merely as a tool for what the group was really after — small pellets of what was, hopefully, New England cottontail rabbit droppings.
“Got some over here!” yelled Rory Larson, a conservation and program leader with the Steep Rock Association, who led the group.
The others rushed over to help Larson put a few of the pellets in a plastic bag, which they would label with the longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates of the spot where the little pile had been left.
Over the course of the morning, the group would collect five bags of droppings to send to the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The tiny, round pellets would then be sent to a lab to determine whether they were, in fact, from the New England cottontail.
“If one of them is a cottontail, they’ll probably want to do a more standardized study,” Larson told the group, explaining how DEEP officials might form a grid of the entire property. “That way we can see where they are and where they aren’t.”
Saturday was the first time a pellet survey had been performed on the grounds, Larson said. The survey would help the state determine where there are still populations of New England cottontails, which were a candidate for the federal endangered species list until 2015, when conservation efforts helped the animals rebound.
The cottontails, Connecticut’s only native rabbit species, were first considered for the list in 2006. At that time, the species’ range had decreased by 85 percent, mainly due to habitat loss, according to DEEP.
State, federal and nongovernmental organizations across the region began working in 2009 to save the cottontails from the list by creating and monitoring habitats and through captive breeding programs.
The Steep Rock Association’s pellet survey let nonprofessional volunteers contribute to the effort.
During the day the group learned how to track the rabbits and spot their droppings, but Larson also answered questions about the property’s swamps, brooks, plant species, bobcat population and general conservation efforts.
“It creates an awareness when you do things like this,” said Mark Zerbe, of Roxbury.
Alexis Barbalinardo, of Washington Depot, said this was one of several citizen science opportunities she participates in with the organization. Steep Rock also hosts a bald eagle survey, a macro-invertebrate sampling, a frog watch and surveys of the nesting boxes on its properties throughout the year.
For Paul Begley, of Harwinton, it was an opportunity to learn something new while also getting outdoors.
“I’m fascinated by wildlife in general,” Begley said. “When we have a chance to get out in nature and learn, you can’t beat it. This time of year you almost have to force it, but when you do, you’re rewarded.”