Cottontail and Woodcock Habitat in Connecticut's Hills

In 2014 the Old Newgate Coon Club, near Norfolk in northwestern Connecticut, launched a project to help New England cottontails by clearing 21 forested acres so that dense small trees – a habitat type also known as young forest – would grow back and create the thick cover that New England’s native rabbit needs. The project also involved building three brush piles per acre, hiding sites that cottontails quickly dart into when threatened by foxes or coyotes.

Habitat on Newgate Coon Club

Some semi-open wildlife habitat on grounds of the Old Newgate Coon Club.

Organized in 1897, the Old Newgate Coon Club is the oldest continuously active hunting club in Connecticut and among the oldest sporting clubs in the United States. Not content to stop with building 21 acres of new rabbit habitat, the club recently got together with resource professionals from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP), and the Wildlife Management Institute’s Young Forest Project to create even more habitat through an NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife contract. What’s planned will benefit not only cottontails but also American woodcock, ruffed grouse, and box turtles, plus many other young-forest animals.

The club’s latest project started in winter 2017-18. It will cover 9 acres and will expand and restore an area that previously had been managed to create young forest and old fields. But that habitat had aged to the point where it no longer provided the best food and hiding cover for wildlife. Both the agency conservationists and Coon Club members understand that young forest is an ephemeral habitat: it only lasts for a short time, usually less than 20 years, before it becomes too tall and thin to benefit the large suite of wildlife that either lives in young growth or visits such habitat for food or shelter.

On the 9-acre site, habitat improvements include cutting trees that are larger than about 2 inches in diameter at breast height. At this point in their growing stage, the trees aren’t providing many benefits to wildlife, and removing them will let light reach the ground so that dense patches of young trees – aspen, birch, ash, red maple, and red oak – will arise and thicken.

Both American woodcock and New England cottontails love this type of thick, low growth. During cutting, lots of woody debris – limbs and small portions of tree trunks – will be left on the ground to rot and release nutrients back into the soil. Over the next several years, conservation professionals and club members will monitor the plants that appear, including young trees and shrubs. If non-native invasive shrubs appear, such as bush honeysuckle and Japanese barberry, they’ll be cut back or otherwise suppressed so that native plants that provide better food and cover will get the upper hand.


In addition to helping New England cottontails, young forest habitat created on the Old Newgate Coon Club will attract birds such as eastern kingbirds (shown here) and American woodcock./T. Berriman

The Old Newgate Coon Club includes 613 acres in the towns of Norfolk and Colebrook. The club’s Forest Stewardship Plan calls for the property to be managed to benefit wildlife and provide a variety of hunting activities. Club president John Parshley pointed out that the club has a long history of conducting habitat management, having carried out several projects funded by NRCS and CT DEEP over the last 20 years.

“Without the technical and financial support provided through these various private-land programs, we would not have been able to accomplish so much work to benefit wildlife,” Parshley said. “The projects not only improve habitat for our members to enjoy, but they also involve the club in important state and regional conservation efforts.”

“The club’s property is a fantastic place for wildlife,” added Paul Rothbart, a retired Wildlife Division Habitat Program supervisor for CT DEEP and now a habitat biologist with the Wildlife Management Institute. “It’s very diverse. It includes stands of mature hardwood trees, conifers, rocky hilltops, forested wetlands, shrublands, fields, spring seeps, vernal pools, ponds, marshes, and swamp.” And now a bigger component of young forest that may attract New England cottontails.

The club’s property lies within two key wildlife focus areas: One is known as the Northern Border New England Cottontail Focus Area; the other is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) Focus Area. Both of these areas identify regions in Connecticut that are important to the welfare of New England cottontails and American woodcock, as well as another 50 “species of greatest conservation need” that also depend on young forest – a type of habitat that CT DEEP’s state Wildlife Action Plan has identified as a key natural vegetation community that needs to be encouraged.

American woodcock and ruffed grouse have been spotted on the club, and New England cottontails are found within 2.2 miles. The new 9-acre habitat area lies close to the 21-acre young forest and shrubland site created in 2014. “This will result in a highly functional habitat patch for wildlife,” said biologist Rothbart. “We hope and believe that New England cottontails will use the patch.” American woodcock will certainly find it, as will resident box turtles and wood turtles. “The habitat should also help many different birds, including eastern towhees, catbirds, indigo buntings, eastern kingbirds, blue-winged warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, prairie warblers, and white-eyed vireos.”

Club members will enjoy hearing those birds calling, plus find greater opportunities to hunt game species such as ruffed grouse and wild turkey. “This project brings a lot of benefits to both people and wildlife in this part of Connecticut,” Rothbart said.