Cottontail Farm, Windham County
Legacy Project on a Family Farm
The small tracked machine rumbled up to a clump of autumn olive 15 feet broad and 10 feet tall. The shrub was one of many non-native invasive shrubs crowding an old pasture on the aptly named Cottontail Farm in eastern Connecticut. It was a misty morning in May, and birds called from fencerows and hedges. The autumn olive looked dense and bushy, but it wouldn't be that way after leaf-fall and in the winter, because it was an old shrub, open-grown and past its prime.
Machine operator Justin Kimball, who had trucked his rig down from New Hampshire that morning, crept his Cat up to the autumn olive, set its blade against the large shrub, and pushed. With a barely audible crack the autumn olive tipped over, its taproot broken. Kimball opened a movable portion of the Cat's blade and grabbed hold of the shrub. He lifted it and shook the dirt from its roots. Then the yellow machine trundled off with the uprooted autumn olive, put it into a pile, and moved on to the next patch of unwanted shrubbery.
Landowner Tom McAvoy stood watching with Ted Kendziora, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist from Concord, N.H., who had drawn up a habitat improvement plan for the Cottontail Farm. Kendziora works closely with private landowners who enlist in the agency's popular Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, concentrating on states within the New England cottontail's range.
"It's amazing how quickly a machine like that can take out a really big autumn olive," Kendziora said. "We can create much better habitat than what that shrub -- really, it's more of a tree -- was providing."
Instant Planting Sites
What the Cat left behind was a patch of soil – an instant planting site, Kendziora called it. "In the next few days, we'll smooth out the soil, scatter native shrub seeds, and plant a native-grass-and-forage mix to prevent erosion while the shrubs take hold. Later, we'll also plant older seedlings of native rose, mulberry, chokeberry, and dogwood. We plan to put 52 groupings of shrubs into this 5-acre field. Add some fencing to temporarily keep out the deer, and this field will be well on its way to becoming a much better habitat for cottontails."
McAvoy is enthusiastic about the changes coming to his property, which include boosting native-shrub habitat on five fields and harvesting 8 acres of timber in an 18-acre woodland. (The timber harvest will produce young forest, a favorite habitat for cottontails.) McAvoy is a lifelong outdoorsman and hunter; his three sons, Noel, Barrett, and Jamison, all in their twenties, also enjoy nature and wildlife.
"There's a lot to learn about New England cottontails," McAvoy said. "It makes you feel good to be able to help the rabbits, especially when you know that other kinds of wildlife – like the songbirds we're listening to – also need the same kind of cover. I look at this as a legacy project, one that my sons will be part of in the future." McAvoy credits his father Thomas, Sr., and his brother Paul, with helping to make improvements on Cottontail Farm that will support habitat-development activities into the future.
McAvoy and his family have hunted deer on the farm for many years; last year they harvested five whitetails. McAvoy understands that making habitat for New England cottontails also improves conditions for deer.
Photos from the 1960s show that the land was once completely open. "This was an active dairy farm with 17 buildings," McAvoy said. As time passed and farming operations ended, the old fields were invaded by autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and other nonnative plants.
Those aggressive shrubs afford some habitat to the local cottontails. Since 2008, biologists with the Wildlife Division of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection have radio-collared and monitored New England cottontails here and on several nearby properties. The biologists are studying the rabbits' home ranges and habitat preferences, how far they move in different seasons, and how long individuals live. They also trapped three rabbits on Cottontail Farm and sent them to Roger Williams Park Zoo, in Rhode Island, to help start a captive breeding program there.
Hands-On Habitat Biology
Kendziora considers himself a hands-on habitat biologist. He's not reluctant to jump on a Bobcat and remove invasive shrubs, or to hand-plant seedlings. "I try to work closely with a landowner and also with the professional contractors who do most of the actual habitat-improvement work. I keep track of what's going on and make sure it's done correctly." He added: "Writing down a plan is one thing. When you get out in the field, you need to be flexible, depending on what you encounter.
"On Cottontail Farm, we'll restore the habitat gradually. We'll keep plenty of shrubland in place – including invasive shrubs – as we work to swing the balance from invasive shrubs to a broader diversity of native plants. Once restored, these fields will offer better food and cover to cottontails and other mammals and songbirds."
Kendziora helped steer McAvoy to Kimball Excavation, with whom Kendziora had worked on a previous habitat project in New Hampshire. He also pointed McAvoy to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program provides funding for landowners who want to help wildlife.
Said McAvoy, "This legacy project will continue into the future. We get great satisfaction out of helping New England cottontails and all the other animals that need the same habitat."
How to Visit
Cottontail Farm is just north of Scotland, Connecticut. The farm has its own website, http://cottontailfarm.com/. Contact Thomas McAvoy at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on this project and on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, contact Ted Kendziora at 603-223-2541 x 13, or email@example.com.
Funding and Partners
McAvoy Living Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program), Natural Resources Conservation Service, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute