Eastern Cottontail (Sylvagus floridanus) — in memory of Regan Russel (1955 – 2020): Barry Kent MacKay

This painting of Eastern Cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend, Regan Russel (1955 – 2020).

The term “bunny hugger” is a frequently heard and rather silly pejorative often applied to any of us whose compassion includes animals. But while I don’t go around hugging bunnies, I’ll own up to being fascinated by the family of mammals known as Leporids, the rabbits and hares and pikas. There are only two native and one introduced Leporid where I live, and only one, this species, commonly seen, especially in my suburban back garden where they enjoy eating, it seems, pretty well whatever my partner, Sandi, or I plant, while I enjoy watching, and sometimes sketching or photographing, them.  While I find all rabbit, hare and pika species to be very attractive in appearance, I am also fascinated by their taxonomy and world distribution (naturally occurring in every non-polar continent except Australia, where one species was purposely placed with ecologically disastrous results), their morphology and behaviour and adaptations to so many different environments and conditions, their population dynamics and, sadly for some species, the conservation challenges they present.

Given how abundant they are here in southern Ontario many people don’t realize that they are a relatively recent arrival. They were absent from the province prior to about 1860, entering from the southwest, presumably swimming across the Detroit River, or hopping across on the ice, into Canada. They are found as far south as northern South America, and on the Caribbean island of Margarita, and west roughly as far as the 100 W. line of longitude that runs through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. They have also been introduced into the western U.S. and Canada and Italy.

Not surprisingly they have diverged into numerous regionally distinct subspecies, the exact number and designation of which being debatable among taxonomists, but my “go to” reference, the highly recommended Handbook of the Mammals of the World, recognizes 31!  Wikipedia comes in at a modest 17. The issue is compounded by several other very similar species of cottontail that may or may not be specifically distinct. Of course, there is also individual and some minor seasonal variation within any one population. My painting shows S. f. mearnsi, the one now native to Ontario, as a female with three of her brood might appear in my garden. While, as a wildlife rehabilitator, my late mother, Phyllis E. MacKay, specialized in birds, she also specialized in cottontails, and in my youth I helped raise to maturity many dozens. First year mortality is very high, so most presumably did not survive, but it was a good feeling to provide them with a second chance. It was ignorance that brought most of the baby cottontails to us, since people didn’t realize that the mother (doe) makes an open “nest”, average depth about 13 cm (5 inches) well hidden within grass or other vegetation and lined with grass and fur, and only comes by about twice a day to nurse the baby, who are born with eyes closed (they start to open in about four to seven days) and so finding a batch of baby bunnies emphatically does not mean they are “orphaned” or “abandoned” (a consideration also applicable to species as varied as White-tailed Deer and Great Horned Owls). 

Independence comes in about a month and just two or three months later sexual maturity is reached, so some breed the same year they are born. They may have three to four litters per year. 

The painting is in oils on an 18 by 14 inch Russian birch panel. I have also included a pen and ink drawing I did of the same species for the Atlas of the Mammals or Ontario by Jon (Sandy) Dobbyn, published by the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature), 1994.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

Purchase, print, product info: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/barry-mackay 


31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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