Rabbits seemingly everywhere: Maybe where you are, maybe not, the local nature of rabbit populations

Rabbit populations, variable and local-focused, are a serious topic for those of us whose gardens and flower beds are being chowed on.

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Two rabbits keeping eyes on a yard Tuesday evening. Credit: Dale Bowman

Two rabbits keeping eyes on a yard Tuesday evening.

Dale Bowman

“This year, my yard is practically overrun with rabbits,” Beth Sawyer emailed. “Sure, they may look cute, but they are hungry! Even going after the coneflowers, that’s a first in my yard. They eat the grass (which doesn’t have clover in it), but that’s okay with me. But when they go after the hostas, false Solomon seal and asters, that’s enough!”

There are so many rabbits around that our dog Lady is too bored with them to even lunge at them on walks any more. So many that my wife made me cut up plastic milk jugs and plastic orange juice bottles to make see-through protection for the emerging purple hyacinth bean vines, part of her pollinator efforts. Before she put up protection, rabbits gnawed off the vines as soon as the first two leaves appeared.

Rabbits chewed off nearly all her lobelia. Rabbits kept my spinach trimmed no higher than an inch this spring.

It is not just Sawyer’s neighborhood or ours. So many rabbits are around that a group of Master Naturalists on Saturday shared rabbit-deterring tips from coyote pee to blood on early shoots.

All things that Sawyer knew of or was trying.

“I’ve tried anti-rabbit sprays—both chemical and organic, even pellets with fox urine,” Sawyer emailed Saturday. “Last evening, a small rabbit was munching on the coneflower leaves which were surrounded by the fox pellets.

“What else can I possibly try besides yards and yards of chicken wire surrounding the plants?”

A rabbit jumped into a hanging basket last spring and savaged the plants. Credit: Dale Bowman

A rabbit jumped into a hanging basket last spring and savaged the plants.

Dale Bowman

I don’t have a good answer for that.

But the topic interested me enough that I asked people smarter than me.

“Rabbit populations fluctuate locally, depending on outbreaks of a disease like tularemia in an area or predators like foxes or coyotes that hunt in the specific preserve, city park, cemetery or other place they call home,” emailed Carl Vogel, director of communications for the Forest Preserves of Cook County. “Rabbits have classic prey population dynamics: Boom or bust. They can breed two or three times in a season and so their numbers in an area will rise quickly when there aren’t those type of factors to limit the growth. There is no one answer across the region for the number of rabbits this year—the populations will be highly localized.”

That last sentence is the truth. If you live in an area with a boom, it is very noticeable. If your area is in a bust, you don’t think about it.

Currently FPCC staff are not conducting a rabbit study.

Illinois state biologist Eric Eric Schauber tweeted that no one at the Illinois Natural History was specifically studying cottontails.

“That would be an interesting project though!” he added.

I think so.

The one long ongoing survey is by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“Rabbits have been in a steady downward trend since 1976 the year after we began our road-kill survey,” messaged district wildlife biologist Bob Massey.

The index is what it sounds like, road kill by thousand miles of travel by observers.

“There have been peaks about every eight to nine years but overall downward,” Massey noted. “This is in general overall travels. It likely misses urbanized rabbits as biologists tend to travel in more rural areas.

“In urban areas regular population models would not apply due to unlimited food and few predators. Likely in urban areas rabbits could maximize their opportunities independent of overall habitat throughout the state. The roadkill index is very sensitive to population trends due to the excellent statewide coverage and large number of miles traveled.”

Here’s the dilemma, I think doing a road-kill index in urban/suburban areas would be harder and less accurate. Even so, I am curious.

A rabbit chewing through grass and thinking it was hiding. Credit: Dale Bowman

A rabbit chewing through grass and thinking it was hiding Tuesday evening.

Dale Bowman

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