Rabbits live on the edge.
by Bob & Jorja Feldman
From the April, 2018 issue
April is bunny month: chocolate bunnies, marshmallow bunnies, pottery bunnies, doll bunnies. But our favorite bunny is the eastern cottontail rabbit.
Ann Arborites can be fairly confident that any rabbit seen hopping around here is an eastern cottontail; it is our only native rabbit. They sport ridiculously long ears (to hear well), soulfully large dark eyes (to see well), long twitchy noses (to smell well), and powerfully muscular hind legs (to run from whatever they see, hear, or smell). And, of course, that telltale white cotton puff. Youngsters generally display a white forehead blaze, a remnant of which may continue into adulthood.
Cottontails' winter diet includes small twigs and tree bark. In summer it expands to include clover and dandelions, garden vegetables, and crops such as corn and soybeans. Apples are a treat. (Of course, not everyone is happy with sharing the fruits of their labors and livelihoods with rabbits.)
Cottontails' preferred habitats combine an open area, usually with a food source such as grass, with a denser "edge" nearby. According to Cody Thompson, mammal collection manager at the U-M Museum of Zoology, farmlands are ideal, but the rabbits are found in a great variety of edge settings, as long as they have a place nearby to hide.
When cottontails detect a predator, they often will freeze in place. If the predator keeps coming, they'll bolt for cover, which might be a shrub thicket, a woodlot, a hollow log, a rock jumble, a weedy or brushy fencerow, perhaps even an abandoned woodchuck burrow. (Cottontails themselves do not dig burrows.) Between predation and other hazards such as vehicular collisions, only about 20 percent survive to age three. Cottontails may also contract tularemia, a bacterial infection that can be transmitted to humans--so if you must handle one, whether living or dead, wear gloves and wash up afterward.
Despite all these perils, cottontails thrive as a species thanks to their famously prolific breeding habits. Thompson says females produce four to six litters during
a good year, each averaging five kits.
The mating process starts with a "frolic" or mating dance. After mating, the female finds or digs a shallow depression, lining the nest with grass and her own body fur. The kits are born around a month later.
Well-meaning people, finding nests full of baby bunnies with no parents in sight, often assume they have been abandoned, and call wildlife rescue groups. The rescuers' advice: leave them be. Mom does not stay with the kits in the nest; she just drops by a couple of times a day to provide milk. As for dad, he is no doubt off on another frolic with a different wannabe mom.
[Originally published in April, 2018.]
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