Cottontail Farm, Eastern Connecticut

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 – one of many non-native shrubs that had invaded an old pasture on the aptly named Cottontail Farm near Scotland, Connecticut. It was a misty morning in May, and songbirds 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 old, open-grown and straggling.

Habitat biologist consulting with landowner

Habitat biologist Ted Kendziora, left, confers with landowner Tom McAvoy on how to improve wildlife habitat on McAvoy's farm./C. Fergus

The machine operator set the Cat's blade against the shrub and pushed. With a barely audible crack the olive tipped over. The operator opened a movable part of the Cat's blade, grabbed the shrub, 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. "We can make much better wildlife habitat than what that autumn olive was providing," said Kendziora. He works with private landowners like McAvoy through the Service's popular Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. Kendziora concentrates on projects within the six-state range of the New England cottontail, a native rabbit currently being considered for Endangered Species status. (To learn more about the New England cottontail, see newenglandcottontail.org.)

Instant Planting Sites

Kendziora and McAvoy walked over to where the Cat had yanked out the autumn olive. Left behind was a patch of soil – "an instant planting site," Kendziora called it. "We'll smooth out the soil, scatter native shrub seeds, and plant grass to prevent erosion while we wait for the shrubs to grow. Our management plan also calls for planting older seedlings of native shrubs, including mulberry, chokeberry, and dogwood. We plan to put 52 groupings of shrubs in 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 New England cottontails."

Machine uprooting invasive shrub.

Grubbing out old autumn olive. The invasive shrub will be replaced by native vegetation, better habitat for New England cottontails and other wildlife./C. Fergus

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 woodlot. (The logging will give rise to regrowing young forest, a favorite habitat for cottontails and dozens of other species.) McAvoy is a lifelong outdoorsman and hunter; his three sons, all in their twenties, also enjoy nature and wildlife.

"It makes you feel good to be able to help the rabbits," McAvoy said, "especially when you know that so many other kinds of wildlife – like the songbirds we're listening to – need the same habitat. I look at this as a project that my sons will be part of in the future." McAvoy and his family hunt deer on the farm; in 2011 they harvested five whitetails. They understand 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 untended fields were invaded by autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and other nonnative plants.

Those aggressive shrubs afford some habitat to the local fauna. Since 2008, biologists with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection have radio-collared and monitored New England cottontails here and on several nearby Windham County properties. The biologists study the rabbits' home ranges and habitat preferences, how far they move in different seasons, and how long individuals live. Three rabbits live-trapped on Cottontail Farm were sent to Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, to help start a captive breeding program there.

Hands-On Habitat Biology

Eastern box turtle

Box turtles also need young forest and shrubland./J. Mays

Kendziora calls himself "a hands-on habitat biologist." He's not reluctant to jump on a Bobcat and remove invasive shrubs, or hand-plant seedlings. "I try to work closely with a landowner during the planning stage," he said, "and later with the professional contractors who do most of the actual habitat-improvement work."

He continued, "Here on Cottontail Farm we'll restore the habitat gradually. We'll keep plenty of shrubland in place – including invasive shrubs – as we swing the balance from non-native shrubs to a broader diversity of native plants. In coming years, these fields will offer more and better food and cover to cottontails, songbirds like brown thrashers and indigo buntings, and reptiles like box turtles and black racers."

Said McAvoy, "This is a legacy project that will continue into the future. Our family gets a huge amount of satisfaction from helping New England cottontails and all the other animals that share the habitat with them."

How to Visit

Cottontail Farm is just north of Scotland, Connecticut. Contact Thomas McAvoy at cottontailfarm@gmail.com. For more information on this project and on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, contact Ted Kendziora at 603-223-2541 x 13, or ted_kendziora@fws.gov.

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