Of Roosevelt, Rabbits and Deer

roosevelt2I like walking at Hill-stead and hearing the vague crunch of my footsteps as I go along.  I try to be quiet.  I imagine Teddy Roosevelt, a guest here at Hill-Stead in bygone days, treading these same paths.  He laughs to see a rabbit, perhaps he shoots it.  Though he is known as our “environment president” having dedicated the first national park lands, he was a prolific hunter, as was common for the time. And every gardener knows, even now there are no dearth of rabbits.

 Only last year Connecticut’s State Department of Environmental Protection used Hill-Stead as a site to study them.  I would be sad if we really shot the rabbits here.  In the Sunken Garden nearer the house I am told they are a nuisance.  At least we have no vegetables to be concerned with.  The farm complex at Hill-Stead is sleeping now, awaiting a time when we can afford to bring it back to greater utility and beauty.

Rabbits in Connecticut come in two types, the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit and and the New England Cottontail.  The Eastern Cottontail is an “introduced” (not native) species that has been out-competing his Yankee cousin ever since he got here in the late 1800’s, right around the time  the Pope family was getting a foothold here in Farmington.  Rabbits are active all year round, and it’s fun to look at the shubbery as you take a walk and see where a rabbit has taken a nice, clean bite out of a branch.  He has two sets of choppers, upper and lower, and he makes a nice clean break, snipping the end off at a neat angle.  In this he is a real contrast to the deer, who in winter are eating a lot of the same woody plants.  The deer are forced into more slovenly habits than rabbits.  Lacking the uppers, they slide their lower teeth along the branch leaving some whispy crushed fiber on the end of the stem.  Such are their calling cards, the deer and the rabbit.

Like so many of his outdoor brethren, the rabbit is setting up housekeeping around now.  Breeding will go on into the fall and a female rabbit (called a doe, believe it or not) and her buck will produce three or so litters a year, with between three and eight bunnies to each.  The comparisons between rabbit and deer don’t end there.

Every spring, people bring piles of squirmy baby bunnies to nature centers.  These good-hearted folks are frantic, worried to death that the babies have been abandoned by the mother.  The fate of the mother is often speculated upon, but the real worry is the too-adorable scrum of bunnies there in the shoebox.  Never fear.  Rabbit mothers are nonchalant.  They leave the babies for periods in the little scrape of a nest they have fashioned out of a depression in the grass and a bit of fur.  When they come back for a quick check and a feed the mother will stand over the depression to let the young ones have their meal.  Then she’s off again.  After all, she breeds like, well, a rabbit, and although she maintains a certain sense of responsibility to each litter, she has alot to teach today’s “helicopter moms”.

When you absolutely have to know if the rabbit nest you found is OK, leave a couple of pieces of yarn over the top while the bunnies are in there.  Maybe make an “x” out of them.  If the yarn is disturbed when you check again, the mom has been back and all is well.  If the babies have been left for a long while and the yarn is intact, check to see if the bunnies still have a white patch on the forehead.  If they do, they are too young to be alone and it might be a good idea to hunt down a rehabber.   If the patch is gone, let nature take its course.  The bunnies are rabbit teenagers, and they’ll resent your interference however well intentioned.

A mother deer is not so different from a rabbit.  Her fawn, though certainly a lot larger than a bunny or even a nest of bunnies, is left on its own for long periods.  The doe is calm.  Her baby hasn’t developed an odor yet, so preditors are less likely to find it, and the young one has a pretty set of white dots on its back to break up any light hitting the fur. It’s terrific camouflage in the dappled light of late spring and early summer.  As extra insurance, her foot pads mark a scent path the fawn can sniff and follow if it needs to find its mom. 

These mothers balance their sense of danger against a practical imperitive.  They are often within an acre or so of their offspring. But they are compelled to let the babies learn the lessons of self-sufficiency in short order.  There is no time for sentimentality.  Winter isn’t really so far away, and a deer has to bulk up against the coming hardships.  Mother rabbit is only another twenty eight days from starting her next batch of bunnies. 
See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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