Wild rabbits are among the mammals you’re most likely to see—if not in your own yard, surely at the edges of schoolyards, golf courses, and community parks. Rabbits are especially common and widespread because they flourish in edge habitat–which we tend to create lots of when we carve out places to live, work, shop, and play. Most of the rabbits you’ll encounter are called cottontails, and their natural history will be the focus of this article. If you’re seeking advice on caring for your pet rabbit, check out the House Rabbit Society, an excellent source of advice for anyone with a pet bunny. If you have found a baby rabbit in the wild, please understand that he or she is very different from those bred as pets. The stress of captivity is too much for wild baby rabbits, and most will quickly die in captivity. Now, let’s get back to learning a bit about the wild rabbits you encounter in your yard and beyond.
Rabbits and their daily lives
Aside from tinier forms of life (like caterpillars and ladybugs) and the more reptilian creatures (if you’re lucky enough to have turtles in your yard), rabbits are among your quietest neighbors. As prey for many species, there’s just not a lot for a rabbit to gain by trumpeting her presence to the world. Thus, the two main vocal sounds that rabbits make are emitted under duress—an alarm squeal when approached, and a distress cry, when a rabbit has been caught by a predator. Rabbits also thump a hind foot as a warning to other rabbits.
You’re most likely to see a rabbit 3-4 hours after sunrise and the first hour after sunset. If they feel safe, they may extend those hours, but will stay close to cover at all times. They often stop their foraging to sit up with perked ears to listen for danger. They spend much of their time grooming or resting in brush piles or hollow logs. They create little beds—hidden within tall grasses or other safe cover—by making a small scrape in the soil and lining it with vegetation.
Rabbits can bound away from predators at 18 miles per hour, making single bounds of up to 10 feet. Such speed becomes increasingly important in winter when cover is less available. Though rabbits do not hibernate, they do hunker down in cold weather, taking shelter in piles of brush, wood, or rocks, and in other animals’ burrows.
From late fall through winter, rabbits survive on buds, twigs, and bark. Spring and summer affords them all sorts of flowers and vegetation, including some things you might not have meant for them to eat—more on that later! And, hey, if you encounter a rabbit appearing to eat the same little pellets being expelled, don’t judge too harshly. The fibrous nature of their food and the shortness of their digestive track require them to digest things twice to obtain adequate nutrition. Eating twice as much food would not solve the problem; otherwise rabbits would not be stuck with this quirky solution!
Rabbits and their young
Rabbits are often a symbol of fertility, and it’s easy to see why. A female born in early spring may have her first litter before her first winter. In the South, breeding season begins in January and goes through October; in the North, it
begins in late March and goes through late August or early September. Having a shorter season, northern rabbits compensate by having slightly larger litters than southern rabbits—usually five instead of three. Thus, one female may have over 30 kits in a year. Although rabbits reproduce in large numbers, survival rate is low due to a high mortality rate as they are prey to nearly every avian and mammalian predator that exists, including free-roaming cats.
Baby rabbits are born in little hollows or scrapes that their mother lines with grasses and/or a soft layer of her fur. The timing of a mother’s molt often coincides nicely with nest-building season. Baby rabbits open their eyes in their first week, may be out of the nest for brief periods by two weeks, and leave the nest permanently and are fully on their own by the third or fourth week (independence occurs even earlier in the south). However tiny they appear at that age, if they have fur, open eyes, erect ears, and the ability to hop, please leave them alone. They are not orphans or escapees—they are fully prepared and authorized to be on their own!
Rabbits and your yard
Rabbits are a delightful sign of springtime, and a joy to watch when hopping about and nibbling grass and clover. But they may be less so when we find them eating flower bulbs or other flowers or veggies we’ve purposefully planted. Consider protecting your plantings with a 2-foot chicken wire fence, supported by posts every 6-8 feet, and staked along the bottom edge.
As a compassionate person, please check your yard over carefully before mowing, as rabbit nests could easily be hidden in the grass. Leave the grass tall around any nests you find until the babies are ready to be on their own, and keep pets away. If you accidentally uncover a rabbit nest while doing spring yard cleanup, gently cover up the babies with the fur and grass and leave so their mother can return.
If you think a rabbit or nest of baby rabbits is in need of help, check out our article “Did You Find a Nest of Baby Bunnies” to learn what to do. Otherwise, simply enjoy the wild rabbits in your backyard for the added amusement they bring to your little corner of the world!