Rabbits are not rodents but belong to their own order called
lagomorphs. The evolutionary split between rabbits and other living mammals probably
occurred about thirty million years ago.
There are twelve species of rabbits in the United States with
the eastern cottontail being the most widely distributed.
Cottontails vary in color from gray to brown and have large
ears and hind feet and fluffy tails. They average about a foot in length and weigh 2
to 3 pounds.
Cottontails are generally found in brushy hedgerows and the
edges of wooded areas with dense cover, but also do very well in suburbs and urban areas.
Rabbits feed on leafy plants during the growing season and the buds and bark of
woody plants in the winter.
Famous for their reproductive abilities, cottontails breed
from February through September. Gestation is about 28 days. Three or four
litters of four or five young known as kittens are born each year. Young are born
helpless in a shallow depression lined with grass and mothers fur, but they grow
rapidly and are weaned when less than half the size of the adult.
Mothers nurse their babies for approximately 5 minutes a day.
The milk is very rich and the babies fill up to capacity within minutes.
Mother rabbits do not sit on their babies to keep them warm. Baby rabbits are often
"rescued" by well-meaning humans who think that they have been abandoned.
Fewer than 10% of these babies survive.
Cottontails may live to two years in the wild, but where
predators are numerous, they seldom live more than one. 85% of the rabbit population
dies each year. This includes at least one out of every three babies that are born
Many mortality factors affect rabbit populations.
Weather is a major factor in nest mortality as ground nests are susceptible to flooding in
Problems and Solutions
Cottontail damage is usually caused by the rabbits feeding on
flowers and vegetable plants in spring and summer and fruit trees and ornamentals in the
fall and winter. You can tell that rabbits caused the damage by the cleanly cut
plant remains and the presence of pea-sized droppings scattered around the area or
sometimes left in small piles.
The most effective permanent protection for gardens subject to
rabbit damage is a well-constructed fence. Chicken wire supported by posts every 6
to 8 feet is strong enough to exclude rabbits. Such fences normally need to be only
about 2 feet high but it is important to make sure that the bottom is either buried 6 to 8
inches or staked securely to the ground to prevent rabbits from pushing their way
underneath it. Some gardeners prefer to construct movable fence panels that can be
stored as sections (2 x 8 feet) and set out to protect the garden right after the first
planting when damage is likely to be most severe. Some years the panels might not be
needed at all given the ups and downs that occur with the rabbit population.
When rabbit presence is only sporadic or occasional, new
plants can be protected by using 1-gallon plastic milk containers that have the bottom cut
out and placed over the seedling or with commercially-available "cloches" which
can be purchased in garden supply stores or ordered from the
Gardeners Supply Company
128 Intervale Road
Burlington, VT 05401
Tel # 800-863-1700
These will also protect new seedlings from late frost.
Young trees and saplings are most vulnerable to damage by
rabbits. Pruning the trees in the fall will provide a decoy food source for the
rabbits if the trimmings are left on the ground for them. For tree protection,
barriers such as commercial tree wraps can be used. A number of companies offer this
type of protection, including
Forestry Supplies, Inc.
P.O. Box 8397
Jackson, MS 39284-8397
Tel # 800-647-5368
If fencing is impractical, or damage is so slight that it is
not cost effective, small plots and individual plants can be protected with a homemade
repellent. To make the repellent you need one whole spanish onion, one jalepeno
pepper and one tablespoon of cayenne pepper. Chop up the onion and pepper.
Mix together and boil in two quarts of water for about 20 minutes. Let cool and then
strain water through a cheesecloth into a container. Using a garden sprayer, spray
any area outside where rabbits are being a nuisance. The process may have to be
carried out for a period of two weeks to assure success. The mixture is non-toxic
and safe. It will not harm the animals but will succeed in keeping them away.
Some claim that empty soda bottles buried up to their necks
and placed along a garden perimeter repel rabbits by producing a noise when the wind blows
that scares them. Some have successfully used scare tape or balloons to frighten
rabbits from a particular area. Pinwheels may also do the trick.
To protect bulbs from rabbits, place l/4 inch hardware cloth
around them when planting. Flowers will grow through the wire.
IF YOU COME ACROSS A RABBIT NEST:
Rabbits "hide their nests in plain view" often
putting them in the open, for example in the middle of the lawn, as well as in brush piles
and long grass. If you find a nest that has been disturbed, do all you can to
restore and protect it rather than bring the babies inside. If a dog has discovered
the nest, you can put a wheelbarrow over it so that the mother can get to it but the dog
cannot. You can also protect the nest with a wicker laundry basket with a hole cut
in it for the mother to enter.
Nests can be moved to a safer place up to 10 feet away from
the original site and can be reconstructed if necessary. To make a new nest, dig a
shallow hole about 3" deep and put into it as much of the original material as you
can recover, including the mothers fur. Add dried grass as needed, and put the
young back. Mother rabbits return to the nest to nurse only one or two times a day,
staying away as much as possible so as not to attract predators. To determine if the
mother is returning, create a tic-tac-toe pattern over the nest with twigs. Wait 24
hours to see if the twigs have been moved. If they have, then the mother is coming
Very young babies with eyes closed and ears back rarely
survive in captivity, so it is very important to determine whether or not the babies
really need your help. See if the babies seem warm and healthy or cold, thin and
dehydrated. To test for dehydration, gently pinch the loose skin at the back of the
neck. If it stays in a "tent," then the baby is dehydrated and needs
rehabilitation. Another test is to stroke the genital area to stimulate elimination.
If the pee is brown and gritty, the mother rabbit has not been there to help the
babies urinate. The brown, gritty urine is toxic and the babies must be cared for.
Older babies who are found outside of the nest may not be
orphaned or in need of assistance. Babies are born without fur but develop a full
coat in a week. Their eyes open in 6-10 days and in three weeks they are weaned.
At this age they are about as round as a banana and they may leave the nest to
explore but return there to sleep. To determine if a bunny this age needs help,
perform the same dehydration and urine tests. Also look for bleeding, convulsing,
fly larvae, broken limbs.
IF YOU FIND AN INJURED RABBIT:
The best thing you can do for an injured bunny is to get in
touch with a skilled wildlife rehabilitator. You can call the local humane shelter
or animal control for a referral or contact the Department of Environmental Conservation.
You can also visit Rabbit Vets USA
for a referral.
HOW CAN YOU HELP RABBITS?
- Keep your cat indoors.
- Keep your dog well attended.
- Check the grass for nests before mowing.
- Educate children to respect young wild animals and to leave them alone.
- Leave healthy young wild animals where you find them and call a wildlife rehabilitator
for advice on what to do.
- Use only non-toxic products on your lawn and garden.
- Do not attempt to raise or keep wildlife yourself.