By Nicole Becker, Student Intern
Spring is here, and so is baby wildlife season. West Place receives numerous calls every year from members of the community who have stumbled upon baby animals and are not sure what to do. In this blog post, we'll focus on rabbits and when NOT to rescue.
Here are the highlights:
The eastern cottontail is the most common species of rabbit in North America.
Breeding season begins in mid-February and lasts until September.
For the first 10 - 12 days, baby rabbits have no fur, folded ears, and sealed eyes rendering them deaf and blind.
Rabbits practice an absentee-maternal care system and seeing a baby alone does not mean it is abandoned.
If you find a baby rabbit or a nest of babies, do not touch or disturb. The best thing you can do is to leave the babies and nest alone.
Rabbits have been around for a very long time. They likely originated in Asia during the Eocene period approximately 55 to 34 million years ago. But it wasn't until the 1700s that people started referring to the furry scamps as rabbits. For about 600 years prior, a rabbit was called a coney.
Rabbits can be found almost everywhere on Earth, except for the coldest and driest regions. There are 15 species of rabbit in North America, but the most common is the eastern cottontail. We'll focus on this species, as they are the rabbits you are most likely to encounter.
Eastern cottontail rabbits breed throughout the spring and summer months, specifically from mid-February to September. Breeding begins when new, green vegetation is sufficient and can nourish mothers during gestation and lactation. The female (doe) does the bulk of the work in rabbit communities, including creating burrows, giving birth, and defending their young. They dig in dry, soft soil for fifty feet or more to create a system of interconnected caves and tunnels called warrens. Warrens can contain as many as 30 rabbits!
During the breeding season, male rabbits establish their dominance by fighting other males before engaging with a female in a ritual called cavorting. The pair will run, chase, hop, and twist high in the air as part of an acrobatic courtship, which helps the female determine if the potential mate is healthy and dominant.
Anything goes when it comes to rabbit mating. Some rabbits practice monogamy and others polygyny. Still others prefer the freedom of promiscuity and will mate with random partners. Rabbits have a gestation period from 27 to 42 days, depending on the species, with eastern cottontails averaging 28 to 29 days. Rabbits are born in a fur nest in a burrow or depression in the underbrush called a form. The entrance is then carefully backfilled with soil and camouflaged with vegetation. Once the nest is complete, rabbits, like all mammals except platypuses and echidnas, give birth to live young.
Eastern cottontails will give birth to between 6 and 35 young per female, per year! These infants are called kits, kittens, or sometimes pups. For the first 10 to 12 days, kits have no fur, folded ears, and sealed eyes, making them functionally deaf and blind. A mother's scent is critical to the survival of the newborn kits. About a week after birth, the babies grow long, soft fur in camouflage colors.
During the first two weeks of a newborn's life, the mortality rate is between 50% and 100% due to exposure, starvation, drowning, and disease. Like humans and about 5,420 other mammal species, rabbits feed their young with milk produced by mammary glands. At 4 to 8 weeks of age, kits begin weaning and start to eat food other than their mother's milk. All rabbits are generalist herbivores, feeding on grasses, forbs, leaves, twigs, shrubs, flowers, bark, berries, seeds, nuts, roots, lichen, and fungi. With their new diet, cottontails grow to resemble miniature adults.
Photo Credit: Bob Reck, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
All cottontails achieve various developmental milestones at roughly the same ages:
Eyes open at 4 to 10 days.
They leave the nest at 12 to 16 days.
They are weaned by about day 30 and disperse soon afterward.
Photo Credit: STANLEY45 / GETTY IMAGES
Seeing a baby alone does not mean its mother abandoned it. Rabbits practice an absentee-maternal care system. In other words, mothers provide the best care for their young by staying away from them as much as possible. Soon after giving birth, mothers leave and return, infrequently, to avoid leading predators to their babies' hiding places. Mothers place their kits in dens for security and leave the nest periodically to find food. After dusk, they return and nurse their kits until before dawn. Cottontail mothers visit their young once in the evening for nursing bouts of less than 10 minutes. They open the entrance to the nest and hunch over it until young come to them, then cover it again when they abruptly leave.
If you find a baby rabbit or a nest of babies, the best thing you can do is leave the baby or nest alone. Do not touch or disturb young rabbits you think are orphaned. If a cottontail nest has visibly been disturbed and babies are displaced, wear gloves and gently move the babies back into the nest, then leave. Their mother will not return if someone is in the way or if she detects the scent of humans on her babies. You can mark an area around the nest so you dont run over it with a lawnmower and keep dogs out of the area. You should only contact a wildlife rescue group or rehabilitator if the babies are injured or crying. If the kits have open eyes, erect ears, and are bouncing around your yard, they can fend for themselves.
Rabbits have been roaming the land long before people arrived and they are perfectly capable of caring for their young. They do not need human assistance or intervention, but educating yourself on their habits and behaviors will help us live together in harmony.