Rebecca Thomas - Nature Notes column head format newest

Commonplace does not indicate familiar. Eastern cottontail rabbits are abundant. You have seen them. Yet how much do you know about these creatures who live alongside us?

Deaf and blind at birth, they have flattened ears and little fur on their bodies. They have a reddish patch on the back of their adult necks. The proper name for their offspring is kittens or kits for short. Adult males are bucks; adult females are does.

Like rodents, they are members of the Pooping Twice Club. After pooping the first time, rabbits’ waste travels through their digestive tract again. That second amusement park ride helps their bodies absorb the most nutrients from their food.

This type of rabbit has a broad range. You can find them in eastern and south central United States. They also live in parts of Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America.

In Ohio, eastern cottontails live in all 88 counties. The majority live in eastern and southern Ohio. Populations have been stable, according to surveys, since 2013. The strongest are in the northeastern, south-central, and south-eastern parts of our state. Western and northwestern areas, farming country, have less brushy habitat and grassland.

Biology dictionary’s website defines population as “’the number of organisms of the same species that live in a particular geographic area at the same time, with the capability of interbreeding”. A healthy eastern cottontail rabbit population consists of three to five animals per acre. Since they spend their lives in a 10-acre area, that means 30 to 50 animals should be there at any one time. That’s a lot of rabbits. Natural predators keep these in check. When this balance in numbers does not exist, overpopulation causes overgrazing. It increases the likelihood of disease. It does not leave sufficient food for other species living in the same habitats.

Since the 1950’s, Ohio’s Rural Mail Carrier survey has kept track of rabbit populations each spring and summer. By partnering with the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife, postal workers not only deliver the mail, they also give us a better indication of the status of this species over long periods of time. Volunteers do this. Monitoring requires only two weeks in the spring and two more in summer. Data collection considers hunters and harvesters. Weather patterns cause fluctuation in numbers.

These mammals eat a varied diet. In spring and summertime, they eat clover, grasses, fruit, and vegetables. In winter, they consume twigs and tree bark from birches, dogwoods, maples, and oaks. Preferred habitat includes meadows close to areas with shrubbery or trees.

Cottontails have many distinguishing features. This should come as no surprise. Brown or gray fur covers their bodies. They stay the same color all year. Their lengthy ears and sizable brown eyes help them avoid predators. The white fluffy tail looks like a ball of cotton. They have four incisor teeth in their top jaw used for cutting food. Two on bottom assist with this chore. Rodents have two in front on top and two on bottom. We humans have eight in all, four on top and bottom.

Dodging predators is easier when you know what to do. Large back feet coupled with smaller front ones let them zigzag run. Pursuers find following them harder compared to prey running in a beeline towards a target getaway. Another way to avoid the chase is to simply stand still and hope that no predator notices you. Predators are better at tracking moving targets.

Rabbits communicate in different ways. Sometimes they thump those hind feet on the ground, a natural reaction to danger. Other forms of communication include growling, grunting, screaming if caught by a predator, and purring when content. Tooth grinding is a sign of pain.

When it comes to senses, rabbits have some heightened ones. They have a shrewd sense of smell and hearing. They breathe through their noses, not their mouths. This must further enhance their olfactory senses.

Lagomorphs are synonymous with agility, jumping, and speed. This is good because most never make it to adulthood. The ones that do often only live for two years. 80 percent is a high death rate.

These animals play a key role in the food web. Many predators hunt them. Cats, dogs, coyotes, foxes, hawks, snakes, and weasels will kill them if they can. Despite the odds for survival being against them, some live for eight to ten years in the wild.

NN36 - kittens in nest

Kittens sleeping in their nest (form)

A female cottontail made a nest in our yard this year. It was in the backyard near the house. By the time my husband found it, the babies were almost ready to leave. On Monday evening, four kittens huddled in the fur-lined nest in the grass. By Tuesday evening, two little ones remained. One tiny tot hopped around several feet away from its nest. After exploring for awhile, it rejoined its sibling and went back to sleep. The next day both had moved on.

NN36 - young cottontail

An Eastern cottontail kitten

The mother knows how to make a well-hidden nest. She digs a slanted, shallow hole in the ground known as a form. Then she makes it more welcoming by lining it with grass, leaves, and her fur. These nests are most often made in grassy areas. Top down, it appears to be only a patch of dead grass. No indication exists of what really hides underneath. During the day, the babies rest here, protected from the elements, concealed from view.

NN36 - grass over nest

The same nest covered with grass

The growth of the young is predictable when they have what they need. Eyes open four to seven days after birth. At 12 to 16 days of age, short trips out of the nest are happening. They are completely independent, weaned, at four to five weeks. They leave the nest to start their own life when seven weeks old.

Most of the day mom stays away. She comes at dusk and dawn when the coast is clear to feed her young. Standing over the nest while nursing helps her not attract unwanted attention. Vulnerability does not increase survival rates. The babies’ best method of defense is staying undercover to all except the mother. She stays away so that her scent will not attract predators. She stays away because her milk nourishes and sustains. It is filling.

NN36 - Size comparison

A size comparison of the rabbit’s nest

Rabbits are prolific. Three to four litters per year is average. The does give birth from March to September. Five babies is not uncommon. One to 12 babies is also possible. From the time that they are a year old, they are mature enough to reproduce. Some start sooner at two or three months of life. If conditions are ideal, a pair could bear 350,000 young in five years.

To review, bucks mate with does; kittens enter the world in nests called forms. The nurseries in plain view keep the babies out of sight. In residential lawns, mowing or tilling often uncovers these nests, leading to deadly results. It is hard to completely prevent.

If you find a nest with some live young, do not move the nest. The mother will probably not be able to find the new location. Cover it again with grass. As needed, put any babies back in the nest. The mother will not reject them. To know for sure that the mother is coming back, make a tic-tac-toe pattern over the area with twigs or yarn. In 24 hours, look to see if that arrangement has changed.

It is illegal in Ohio to keep a wild rabbit. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators are an option for orphans. Our Department of Natural Resources keeps a current list of Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitators, organized alphabetically by county, on their website. You can find a link on their Orphaned and Injured Wildlife page. What type of animals each one accepts is also listed there.

Eastern cottontail rabbits reside here, there, and yonder. Rabbits, in general, have been part of our popular culture for generations. Beatrix Potter’s Peter and Bugs Bunny are still well known. Their inspirations are not as well known as their fictional cousins. After reading this article, you should know the real ones better.

In case you are still curious, here is one more interesting fact to take with you. They sometimes pee blue. When eastern cottontails eat European buckthorn twigs and bark in winter, their urine turns blue ten minutes after sunlight exposure. They do not eat this invasive shrub on a regular basis, but the plant does grow throughout Ohio. If you see blue pee on snowy ground, it may indicate that these rabbits are having a hard time finding other food.

To contact Rebecca Thomas via email, send her a message at rebeccathomas123@yahoo.com.

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