Five wild rabbits left the thickets of eastern Connecticut this winter for a new home at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence and now await their moment to live up to their species' reputation for fecundity.
If all goes as planned, the five females and one male will help repopulate all of New England with their offspring.
The rabbits are in an area at the zoo that's not opened to the public.
They are New England cottontails trapped in the Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown and on private land in Scotland by Howard Kilpatrick, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, as part of a multistate program to bring back the threatened species.
"The first step was to see if we could keep them alive and healthy in captivity, and the next step will be to see if we can get them to breed," Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at the zoo, said Wednesday. He hopes the breeding will take place in a few weeks; mothers would give birth about a month later. Once the young are old enough, they would be released, with radio collars attached, in Rhode Island. Later generations will be released in other New England states.
New England cottontails, a smaller native cousin to the more common Eastern cottontails, since 2006 have been "candidate species" for listing as a federal endangered species. New England states are working together on restoration efforts, Kilpatrick said. This includes increasing the amount of the shrubby, "early successional" habitat the rabbits favor.
On Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the DEP will host a workshop for the public, including private landowners, members of land trusts and conservation groups, about how they can help. It will take place at the DEP's Sessions Woods Conservation Center in Burlington. (To register, call (860) 675-8130.)
Kilpatrick said Connecticut provided the breeding cottontails because it harbors the most significant proportion of the remaining population in the six New England states. Southeastern Connecticut, including Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton and the Pachaug, has several clusters of cottontail populations.
"You're much better off trying to preserve and maintain a healthy and stable population" than letting it get to the point that it becomes an endangered species, said Kilpatrick.
Paul Rothbart, state habitat program supervisor for the DEP, said the creation of habitat for cottontails at six sites, including Zemko Wildlife Management Area in Salem, benefits up to 47 other species that prefer shrubby thickets over forested land. Among them are the frosted elfin butterfly, the leopard frog, the hognose snake, the blue-winged warbler, the whip-poor-will, the Eastern towee and the golden-winged warbler.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service grants paid for the habitat work.
At Friday's workshop, attendees will learn about habitat programs they can tap for their properties and tour a demonstration site.