How to coexist with rabbits

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Eastern cottontail rabbits are one of the most commonly encountered animals in our yards and neighborhoods, and this is true across much of their range.

Eastern cottontails are one of two rabbits found in Illinois. The other, the swamp rabbit, lives only in the southern portion of the state, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Eastern cottontails live across the entire state, but they are most populous in western parts of the state and the southern third of the state. They have the largest range of all the species of cottontail rabbits and can be found from the East Coast as far west as the Great Plains as well as in most of Mexico and southern Canada. 

The rabbits do well in suburban and urban areas, but they thrive in open areas where crops, grasses and woods are readily available. Their ideal habitat includes a variety of plants for food and places to seek shelter, IDNR reports. Their population tends to be highest in places with abundant weeds and grasses as well as woody vegetation and briar patches.

Ecological effects

A rabbit sitting in the grass.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Cottontail rabbits play an important role in the food chain, because they are a common prey item for a wide variety of predators, including coyotes, foxes, hawks and owls. When rabbit populations decline in an area, predator populations also decline, Wildlife Illinois reports. When cottontail rabbit populations are steady and healthy, less predation on livestock occurs because wild predators have a stable food supply.

Mating and reproduction

A rabbit nursing her babies.

(Photo courtesy of John Sullivan)

Cottontail rabbits are well-known for their prolific breeding ability, which is due to a few factors. First, the rabbits can begin breeding very early in life — as young as 2 months to 3 months old. They also have a short gestation period, meaning they can produce several litters of offspring each year, Animal Diversity Web reports.

Rabbits have a long breeding season, running from February through September, but peaking between March and May, according to Wildlife Illinois. After a gestation period of 25 to 30 days, rabbits give birth to between four and six babies. Females will often have three litters a year.

Babies are born blind and furless, but their eyes are open within a week and their fur has grown in after two weeks. To help protect the babies from predators, mothers only visit their nests twice a day — in morning and evening, Wildlife Illinois reports. The babies will leave the nest to live on their own after about three weeks.

Health risks

A rabbit sitting in the grass.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Rabbits generally pose no health risks to people, although they can be carriers of the bacterial disease tularemia, which is fatal for the animals, according to Wildlife Illinois. Tularemia does not occur naturally in humans and isn’t spread from person to person. It can be contracted by humans via insect bites or when they handle a dead or sick animal or eat undercooked meat from an infected animal. 

To protect yourself against tularemia, always wear rubber gloves when handling dead or injured rabbits, and make sure to wash your hands with warm, soapy water after contact with wildlife.

Problems and solutions

A rabbit eating grass.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Rabbits can be a nuisance in our yards and gardens because they eat plants, including grasses, vegetable plants such as lettuce, peas and beans, and other common landscape plants. Rabbits aren’t the only culprit when plants are being damaged, but you can tell the difference between rabbits and deer eating greenery by taking a close look at what’s left behind. Plants eaten by rabbits will have clean, 45-degree cuts where the flower heads and buds or small stems were bit off, Wildlife Illinois reports. You may also see gnawing on stems and bark from woody plants in winter. Deer don’t have sharp teeth like rabbits, so they do not make clean cuts. Damage caused by rabbits can be confused with that from squirrels and voles, however.

If rabbits are causing problems in your yard or garden, you can try installing wire mesh fencing around vulnerable areas. A 4-foot-wide roll is enough to keep rabbits out; look for mesh with 1-inch square openings or smaller, Wildlife Illinois advises. When installing the fencing, fan out the bottom 6 inches, facing away from your garden bed, to prevent rabbits from crawling or burrowing underneath. 

If rabbits are damaging trunks of small or young trees and shrubs, try wrapping them in wire mesh fencing with ¼-inch square openings. On trees, the mesh should reach at least 1 foot above expected snow depth for a typical winter. Take care not to wrap it too tightly or it may interfere with growth, according to Wildlife Illinois.
Cottontail rabbit nests can also sometimes be problematic in our yards, especially for pet owners. Young rabbits are left alone and are vulnerable to attacks from cats and dogs as well as other predators. If you have a rabbit nest in your yard, take care to keep pets away from it until the babies leave the nest, Wildlife Illinois reports. It’s also a good idea to check your yard for potential nests before cutting the grass. Remember that finding baby rabbits alone is normal and no cause for concern. Mothers only visit their nests once or twice a day.

If animals on your property continue to cause damage after corrective measures have been taken, consider humanely removing and relocating them only as a last resort. Trapping a rabbit to remove it from your property requires a permit from IDNR. If you do not want to remove it yourself, contact a licensed wildlife control operator to contract their services.

All wildlife in Illinois are under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Forest Preserve District of Will County does not treat, rescue or remove wildlife from public or private property. Both the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Illinois maintain lists of wildlife rehabilitators you can contact for assistance with injured wildlife. 

(Lead image via Shutterstock)


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