Among my more common neighbors living off-Broadway are rabbits. People seem to be in two schools when it comes to wild rabbits; either the bunnies are adorable or they are pests.
Be that as it may, everyone knows what a rabbit is, whether you grew up outside, watched Bugs Bunny cartoons, or read the tales of Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit.
Rabbits and hares are not rodents, but instead belong to a family of mammals called lagomorphs. Hares are larger than rabbits, with long ears and limbs. When the young are born, their eyes are open and they are covered in fur. A hare’s strategy in the face of danger is to run. And if they don’t take their opponent for granted, as in Aesop’s fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” they usually win the race.
In Rhode Island, the only hare occasionally found is the snowshoe hare, which is known for its color adaptation of growing a white fur coat for the winter season so it is camouflaged in the snow. These hares tend to be more common in colder climes across Canada and the northern U.S.
The two rabbits that call Rhode Island home are the common Eastern cottontail and the rare New England cottontail. Rabbits are smaller than hares and their young are born naked and blind. When danger approaches, rabbits dart rather than run, and hide if they can. They will also freeze in place if they are well camouflaged.
Rabbits are herbivores who eat a variety of plants, depending upon the season. In spring and summer, they eat grass, clover, flower buds and sprouts of dandelions, beans and peas. For gardeners, a rabbit’s appetite for young plants can be a menace, and it is wise to encircle growing vegetables with a threefoot wire fence.
In the fall, rabbits change their diet to include buds, stems and the bark of sumac, birch, red maple and apple trees. If you find clipped vegetation in your yard in winter, you can tell whether it is rabbit or deer by the height of the damage, and whether the animal nipped it off cleanly at a 45-degree angle (rabbit) or tore it off leaving a ragged end (deer).
Every animal is good at something, and with rabbits, it’s their nose that knows. They have an excellent sense of smell, with an estimated 100 million scent receptors in their nostrils. In order to expose those receptors to the air, they twitch their nose 20 to 200 times per minute.
As the saying goes, cottontails breed like rabbits. They start having young in early spring and will have two or three litters over the course of the summer, with an average of five young per litter. The female digs a shallow nest in the ground and lines it with grass, leaves and her own fur. After giving birth, she will cover the young with leaves and grass, and only return a few times over 24 hours to feed and groom her young “kits.”
Audubon gets a lot of calls from folks who find baby rabbits in their yards and gardens. “It’s best to leave the nest alone and recover it if it is exposed,” said Dr. Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior director of conservation. “The mother is nearby and will return to a nest even if it has been somewhat disturbed.”
Baby rabbits are only in the nest three weeks before they are on their own. “Young rabbits smaller than the size of my fist are out there on their own,” Ruhren said. “They are very precocious, so don’t worry about their size. Just let them be.”
Having lots of babies is a strategy for rabbit survival as a species. They only live about two years, and are prey for many animals, including hawks, owls, fox, coyote and weasels. When caught by a predator, rabbits make a terrifying screaming noise that sends chills down your spine.
Historically, the New England cottontail was the only rabbit species found in this region, but in the early 1900s, with their population in decline, hunters introduced thousands of Eastern cottontails to the area from the Midwest.
The two species are difficult to tell apart just by looking at them. They range in size from 14 to 19 inches and weigh between 1.5 to four pounds. Scientists say New England cottontails are slightly smaller, with smaller ears, but it is a tough call.
The fur of both species tends to be grayish-brown, with a white belly, and they both have the puffy, white tail for which they are named. The Eastern cottontail has white markings on its forehead and the New England has black markings, but it could be only a few hairs not easily seen from a distance. Scientists do DNA studies of fecal pellets to confirm the species present.
The New England cottontail populations in the region are threatened due to habitat loss and competition for resources with their introduced cousin. Scientists estimate there are only about 13,000 remaining in the wild. Both species can live in overgrown fields, shrubby swamps and marshes, young forests and woodland thickets, but only the Eastern cottontail will be found in Newport neighborhood backyards.
Habitats that New England cottontails thrive in are in decline due to development, fire suppression and maturing forests. Conservation efforts by government agencies and environmental organizations to reinvigorate the population have been underway for years.
Some of the strategies to improve rabbit habitat can be controversial. “The rabbits need young woodlands and one way to create young forest is to cut down a patch of mature forest,” he said. “People don’t like to see trees coming down.”
If you are interested in creating a New England cottontail habitat on your own land, check out newenglandcottontail.org.