Raising Cottontail Rabbits
I am surrounded by wild infant cottontails. They are so small. Each time one hops by me, I want to scoop it up and cuddle it. But they don’t like scooping or cuddling. Not with people, at least. And it’s not the best thing to do when dealing with wild orphans.
We all know that nature can be rough. If the tale of the robin’s eggs wasn’t enough to settle the issue, let me tell you about Thumper, Foo Bar, and Houdini.
Around Easter, we encountered a remarkably bold cottontail rabbit next to Dodgy. It looked at us, we looked at it. I ran off to find my camera. When I returned, it was still there. I snapped a pic and that was that. So we thought.
What we learned later was that it was a mommy bunny. About a week or two after our first encounter, we spotted the same rabbit in a patch of ivy. We were so surprised that the rabbit wasn’t moving until we saw why she was distracted. A mound of infant cotton tails were jostling for position at their mother’s metaphorical food trough. We were delighted and resolved to keep an eye on the nest.
Adult cotton tail rabbits stay away from their nest most of the day. Aside from occasionally showing up to nurse the babies, the mother keeps her distance. In this way, predators have few opportunities to follow the mother to the nest. The patch of ivy where this particular nest hides is just a few yards from Dodgy. Yet, we only noticed it through that chance nursing encounter.
It was only a couple days later that I heard scuffling around the nest. I assumed it was the jostling of eager babies nursing. But it was quite loud. And the next morning, the nest was torn up. A while later we notices three baby bunnies scattered in the far reaches of the ivy patch. I know there had been at least seven babies the day before, but we didn’t see any evidence of the rest.
We have heard that a coyote had been spotted several times in the area and had dragged away several cats. There is no accounting for how many wild rabbits may have shared the same fate. Of course, a cat could easily decimate the nest on its own. We have no idea. Sadly, after reading up on orphaned cottontail rabbits, it appears that the mother is unlikely to return after a violent attack and a destroyed nest.
So, here we are with three baby bunnies. We scoop them into a large cardboard box with a clean towel for them to nest in. We buy both pellets and nursing supplies so that, hopefully, we can raise these three to a size where they can fend for themselves in the wild. While we take care of them, though, they will need names…
This is Houdini.
Naming him was probably the easiest part of fostering three baby bunnies. In case the name didn’t give it away, Houdini is an escape artist. Of the three, he jumps the highest, explores the furthest, and fights the hardest.
When I think about releasing these three back into the wild, I have the greatest confidence in Houdini. He learns and adapts. In a few days, he learned to stay away from corners when I’m trying to pick him up to move him. While I can still catch the others relatively easily by backing them into a corner, he keeps a foot away from the corner and bolts before I can block his escape route.
Among the baby bunny roll call, Thumper is the easiest to identify because she has no white spot on her head. She is quiet, decisive, and fastidious.
She is the most defensive of the three, preferring shelter unless she absolutely needs to come out for food.
Like a cat, she has selected a location to be her litter box and always returns to that location.
She knows what she wants and will not be rushed. The promise of tasty kale is not enough to woo her out of the nest when she doesn’t feel like coming out.
Meet Foo Bar
Foo Bar only wants two things: to eat and be left alone. Even outside of his nest, he is either eating or sitting in a corner. If we have to move him, he will just sit in that spot, perfectly still, for five minutes before looking for cover.
We learn that bunnies sleep with their eyes open. When in a room, they prefer the corner. Now we know: Foo Bar pretty much just sleeps and eats.
Raising The Bunnies
After a few false steps, we settle into a rhythm. As soon as we wake up in the morning and just before we go to bed each night, we check on the babies. We quickly discover that the bunnies were ready for real food. We keep their dish stocked with small rabbit pellets and a few different fresh treats: tender greens from outside, kale, grapes, and more. They would do anything for kale.
Even the less pleasant parts of bunny care are no great burden. We regularly clean their space and change out the paper and cardboard that we use for their floor. My, bunnies grow up fast. They grow. They eat more. They leave bigger messes. It is not long before they will outgrow this space.
As programmers, a release day has a well trodden formula. This is a day that new code for updates, improvements, and new features is released to the user—in our case, this is commonly when code is pushed live to a website we manage. We run a crawler to look for bugs in the code. We discuss any potential conflicts that may arrive. We settle on an optimal time to release. But today, we were releasing more than code.
We had scoped out a location. We had a few food dishes in place in case there was any difficulty transitioning. And we had settled on a time: 5:30 PM—just before sunset.
Cowboy collects branches and twigs for that night’s fire as I set down the box. We drink a lot of tea, and the bulk boxes come in a larger box with a narrow slit along the side to show the labels of the tea. For the rabbits, it is a bunker. They can peer out of the slit but feel secure. Houdini, Thumper, and Foo Bar have come to prefer this box over their original towel-nest. I now use it like a crate&carrying them from where they have stayed the last couple weeks to the patch of ivy where we will release them.
Houdini came out first. In one swift bound he was in the ivy. After pausing to assess the area he streaks to the nearest bush.
Foo Bar pauses at the threshold of the crate. Ten minutes and he hadn’t moved. He lingered in indecision until I looked over to swat a mosquito. When I looked back, he was gone.
Now it is just me and Thumper. She has always been my favorite with her relaxed disposition. In characteristic behavior, she is content to wait for her brothers to scout out the foreign territory. Then it is her turn.
We toast each other to a job well done and commence to roast hotdogs and keep an eye out for any problems. Occasionally, we see them pop out from the bush to inspect some clover. We just sit and watch as they bound back into shelter.
May they find safety and comfort.