text & photos : Norma A. Hubbard (octobre 2018)
The first time I saw a rabbit run across my trail, I ran after it calling, “Wait for me!” I felt like Alice in her Wonderland, even though my rabbit was not a white rabbit but an eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). There is something delightful about seeing animals in the wild. My yard always has a few rabbits hopping around the flowers making it seem like I am living in my own wonderland.
Eastern cottontails are rabbits, not hares. Hares are larger and their fur changes to white in winter; cottontails generally remain the same colour all year. Their fur is a mixture of browns and greys and, as the name indicates, they have white fluffy fur under their tails – which is quite noticeable as they run away. Cottontails are small rabbits weighing only 1 to 3 ½ lbs. (.4 – 1.5 kg) and about 15 to 19 in (38-48 cm) in length. This small size along with big eyes makes rabbits adorable to most of us, although rabbits are less appealing to farmers, remember the tales of Peter Rabbit and Farmer McGregor! They can dig under fences or chew their way into gardens. In fact, a rabbit’s front teeth grow continuously, so rabbits need to chew on tough things to keep the teeth short.
Besides living in our gardens, eastern cottontails tend to live on the edge of an environment, such as a forest beside an open field. In addition, rabbits will live around swamps, thickets, or any area with bush to provide shelter. Rabbits are herbivores eating grasses, clover, and other vegetation. During the winter months, rabbits will eat the twigs and bark from trees and bushes. I have often seen them eating the bark from apple branches on the ground, but they have also eaten the bark off my new trees, which makes them less endearing. In the winter, I often leave my composting on the ground for the animals; a luxury I can afford with 10 acres.
Rabbits do not live long in the wild, only about three years on average. However, rabbits have the potential to live up to 10 years. Almost any large animal or bird will prey on rabbits, such as coyotes, fox, and hawks; even snakes can eat baby bunnies. Rabbits can run up to speeds of 18 km/hr. and will run in a zigzag pattern to avoid capture. They are mostly crepuscular, meaning they are more active at dusk and dawn and tend to hide during the day. Rabbits are territorial and have escape routes planned and ready to use in their territories. Both male and female rabbits will fight for territory. If caught a rabbit will scream, but generally they are quiet animals using their hind legs to thump the ground when danger is near rather than giving a vocal warning.
During mating – any time between February and September – rabbits do a mating ‘dance’. Males chase females and females will box males with their front paws. During the dance, they will both take turns leaping in the air while the other runs underneath. I watched the rabbits in my yard do this dance and it is quite entertaining. After mating, the female builds a nest in the ground and lines it with fur from her chest. A litter might have one to ten kits (baby bunnies); sadly in the wild about half of the kits will not survive. Females are able to have 3-4 litters per year. The mother hides the nest by covering it with leaves and grasses and comes to feed her babies twice a day. A group of rabbits is called a fluffle; however, they are mostly solitary animals.
I quite enjoy having rabbits on my property. When people hear I live in the country and have gardens, they ask me if I have a vegetable garden. I reply, “You mean a rabbit garden? … Nope.” It takes a moment, but people get it. Occasionally rabbits eat my flowers; yet that is okay because having rabbits in my gardens makes it truly a wonderland.
Sources: Nature Works [online]; Welcome to Wildlife [online]