Here comes Peter Cottontail.
It isn't merely filling Easter baskets that has the New England cottontail rabbit stressed. Even more likely to get those ears tingling is the prospect of disappearing altogether.
The New England cottontail has been designated as a candidate species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, according to Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The population has declined sharply during the past 25 to 50 years, officials say, and the rabbit is now considered imperiled.
One reason for the eclipse, says Tom French, an assistant director of the division, is the rise of the Eastern cottontail, a species imported by state officials in the early part of the 20th century to benefit hunters.
"They are essentially pushing the native population out," French said. (Meanwhile, he noted, the state has turned 180 degrees on the advisability of moving species about.)
Fire has also played a role in the disappearance of the New England cottontail — no, not because we're having fires, but because we're not. The New England cottontail thrives in areas of thick vegetation, the type likely to spring up following a fire.
Our local cottontails are doing best on Cape Cod, said French, because of its sandy soil and scrub vegetation.
To keep track of the rabbit population, MassWildlife is asking for — and there's no other way to put this around Easter — dead rabbits.
Telling the difference between species isn't as easy as you might think, and experts must test for DNA or study the animal's skull to determine which is which.
Road-killed carcasses should be placed in a plastic bag and frozen until ... dropped off at a MassWildlife District Office or Hatchery, the closest of which is in Ayer.
Marblehead's animal control officer, Betsy Cruger, is a big supporter of the cottontail rabbit, especially at Easter.
"I still have young kids," she joked.
Yet, she has to admit the population of real rabbits hasn't been making itself felt.
"I haven't seen any," she said. For that matter, reviewing recent records of the town's roadkills she found only a handful of rabbits on the list.
Even so, Cruger remains optimistic regarding the Easter Bunny.
"I know he's coming to our house," she said.
Alan Burke may be contacted at email@example.com