Living Peaceably with Rabbits
In “A Sand County Almanac” Aldo Leopold wrote, “But I know from the history of present seedlings that no oak grows above the reach of rabbits without a decade or more of getting girdled each winter, and re-sprouting during the following summer. Indeed, it is all too clear that every surviving oak is the product of either rabbit negligence or of rabbit scarcity.”
Anyone trying to establish new plantings in rabbit territory knows what Mr. Leopold was talking about and can attest to the fact that it is not just young oaks that rabbits are fond of nibbling—dogwoods, buttonbushes, and a seemingly endless list of other trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables can all fall prey to the voracious appetite of rabbits. And in Illinois rabbit territory is, well, just about everywhere. So, the age-old battle between rabbits and plants (and the people who plant the plants) continues. Let’s talk strategy. As they say, “the best defense is a good offense,” and when protecting one’s plants it seems best not to count on rabbit negligence or rabbit scarcity.
Understanding rabbit ecology and life history can help gardeners plan a strategy to protect their plants and live peaceably with rabbits. Of the 13 species of rabbits found in North America only two occur in Illinois—the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus). Cottontails are abundant throughout Illinois and are common in every county, with the highest population densities occurring in the southern third and western parts of the state. Swamp rabbits, while similar in appearance to the cottontail but larger and with darker, reddish-brown fur, are found only in the southern counties.
While their geographic ranges overlap somewhat, the two species have quite different habitat preferences. Cottontails are found in open spaces near woody cover. They are abundant where grass fields adjoin fence rows or other brushy areas. In urban areas, they are common in grassy areas with brush piles or groupings of ornamental shrubs, groundcover, or tall grasses nearby where they can take cover from predators and inclement weather. Cottontails typically avoid dense woods, short grass with no nearby cover, and wet habitats such as marshes. Not so with the swamp rabbit, which prefers wet habitats. Swamp rabbits are found in forested wetlands and thickets or woods bordering swamps and are exceptionally good swimmers.
Both rabbits are prey species and it is important for them to use habitats where shelter, nest sites and feeding areas are close to each other. So, they spend their lives in fairly small areas—typically 10 acres or less. To hide from predators and to take refuge from inclement weather, rabbits use forms (shelters made from grass or weeds) and scrapes beneath the cover of vegetation. In the winter, they may also use underground burrows that have been abandoned by a woodchuck or other species.
During the winter months, cottontails usually feed after dark. At other times of the year, they feed from sunrise until early morning and again around sunset. If the weather is mild, and they have adequate cover, they often feed throughout the day as well.
Since the first step of any good offense is knowing your “opponent,” one must first determine if rabbits are the ones causing the damage. Plant damage caused by rabbits is different from damage caused by deer, but it can easily be confused with damage caused by voles or squirrels. Deer do not have sharp incisors like rabbits, so instead of neatly clipping the vegetation as rabbits do, deer twist and pull the plant when browsing which tends to give the vegetation a shredded appearance. To identify rabbit damage, look for clean 45-degree cuts that clip off flower heads, buds, or small, woody stems. There may also be evidence of gnawing on bark or stems of woody plants, particularly during winter months with heavy snow-cover.
Protecting landscaping in rabbit territory will involve a strategy that involves habitat modification, exclusion, use of repellents, and as a last resort, removal. Habitat modification requires removing places that rabbits might take cover such as brush piles, bushes, weed patches, or stone piles, and keeping the grass cut short. Exclusion, through use of properly installed wire mesh or fencing, is highly effective in protecting specimen plants and in keeping rabbits out of small areas such as vegetable gardens or flowerbeds. Additionally, there are many commercially available repellents to deter rabbits from eating plants. Keep in mind that these products will need to be reapplied as the plants develop new growth and after heavy rains. More details about each of these non-lethal control methods can be found on the rabbit page of Wildlife Illinois.
In Illinois, both the eastern cottontail and the swamp rabbit are protected as small game animals. If there is a large rabbit population to contend with, and all other damage control methods have failed, you can apply for an animal removal permit from an Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist if you want to trap the rabbits yourself. The biologist will provide information on options for resolving problems. Another option is to hire a permitted Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator to trap and remove the rabbits. In areas open to hunting, hunters can help to control rabbit numbers, though the number of rabbit hunters, and the number of rabbits they take, has been on the decline in recent years. See the Hunt Illinois website for recent rabbit harvest reports. Current hunting regulations can be found in the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations. Be aware that even if rabbits are removed from the property, if habitat is available, more rabbits will come to the property.
Wild rabbits have a short life expectancy and typically live less than a year. Despite their short lifespans, protecting plants from rabbits can be challenging because they are such prolific breeders. Cottontails start breeding when full-grown, which occurs when they are about 6 months old. They breed from February through September, with the peak occurring between March and May. Gestation is 28 to 30 days, with four to six young born per litter. Cottontails often have three litters per year.
The young are born blind and without fur, but within a week their eyes are open, and by the second week their fur has grown in. At three weeks old the young often leave the nest during the day and return at night. By their fourth week they are ready to leave the nest completely.
To keep predators from finding the young, the female only visits the nest twice a day to nurse them, typically once in early morning and again in the evening. The best way to protect young rabbits in your yard is to leave them in their nest. Keep cats and dogs away from the area and be watchful for nests and baby rabbits when mowing. For more information about what to do if you find baby rabbits, or other young wildlife, check out the Wildlife Illinois website.
It is important to remember that no matter what plant protection strategy is in place, there will be more rabbits. But another famous quote by Leopold reminds us that “The damage done by birds is like that done by dogs or children; if you like them well enough, there are ways to get along.” I think that sentiment extends to rabbits as well. Fortunately, with an understanding of rabbit ecology and some simple wildlife management techniques it is possible to both enjoy rabbits and protect your garden and landscaping.
Laura Kammin is an Educational Programming Specialist with Lewis and Clark Community College. She formerly held positions at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Rivers Network and the Illinois Natural History Survey. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.