Nature, I find, wants to connect with us in any way possible. As long as we are observant enough to notice it, it will find its way to us, even in our own backyards. A few weeks ago, I was playing fetch with my dog and noticed a perfectly round, empty depression in the mulch of a flower bed. Thinking that perhaps it was a nest made by a bird about to lay eggs, I made a mental note to keep watch of it—then promptly forgot about it.
Earlier this week, playing another scintillating game of fetch, I noticed a clump of fur in the mulch. I reached for it, thinking to tidy up the flower bed. Imagine my surprise when I picked up the loose fur and discovered a nest of baby marsh rabbits! I was so startled to uncover tiny living creatures bedded down in my garden! The rabbits understandably were equally startled (more likely, terrified,) and one expressed its feelings with a little barking grunt.
The babies were quite small, as you can see in this photo, probably about 3 inches long. Marsh rabbits are born blind and helpless and only stay in the nest for about two weeks, so I estimated my bunnies to be about 10 days old. They didn’t move much, snugly packed together in the nest that the mother rabbit had lined with fur she plucked from her own breast. They just lay there, alert with noses twitching.
I couldn’t resist taking this quick photo, then covered up the babies and resumed throwing the ball for my always enthusiastic Boston terrier. I noticed that my clever dog, who is quite a skilled sniffer, didn’t seem to smell or be at all aware of the bunny nest.
That made me curious, so I started researching.
Like many mammal babies, newborn rabbits do not have any scent. This is so they don’t attract predators. The mama rabbit, however, does have a scent, so she only visits her nest once or twice a day to reduce the chances of the nest being discovered.
She nurses the babies and also delivers an important food source consumed by all rabbits: cecotropes. That’s a fancy word for a special kind of rabbit poop that is re-ingested. When a rabbit eats, its food is quickly and ineffectively digested. Some of the food goes back into the cecum, which is at the end of the large intestine, and gets further broken down, then expelled. Rabbits—and other animals such as beavers and guinea pigs—eat these special poop pellets in order to ingest more nutrients the second time around. Delightful, no? Actually, cecotropes are an absolutely critical part of a rabbit’s diet, providing vitamins, minerals and protein as well as the digestive flora and bacteria they require to digest food and survive. Baby rabbits can’t produce their own cecotropes so, at first, they need their moms to kick-start their digestive systems and help make the transition from milk to solid foods.
Marsh rabbits are a Southern, darker cousin to the Eastern cottontail rabbits found in the lake region. They have shorter, rounded ears and are distinguished from all cottontail species (of which there are eight in the U.S.) by the dark underside of their tails—cottontails, as the name implies, are white.
Typically found near water, marsh rabbits are strong swimmers and may dive into water to escape predation. Eastern cottontails are high jumpers and fast runners, reaching speeds of 18 mph. Always on alert for predators, rabbits are usually silent and watchful. Their ears can rotate 270 degrees and they have 360-degree vision. The list of potential predators rabbits face is a long one, ranging from owls and other raptors to bobcats, coyotes and snakes. Their rate of predation is one reason for their storied proliferation. Rabbits deserve their reputation for being avid reproducers. Eastern cottontail rabbits can produce as many as 35 kittens (as baby rabbits are called) in a year. On average, however, they have three or four litters annually with about five kittens in each.
If you find a nest of baby bunnies, cover them back up and leave them alone. The mother is most likely nearby watching and will check on her offspring (and drop off some tasty cecotropes) come the next dawn or evening. I visited my nest daily and could tell the mom had been there to take care of her kittens because the fur and leaves that covered the nest had clearly been rearranged each day.
Of course, the day came when I went to visit and all I found was an empty nest. There were no signs of predation, so I hope my baby rabbits safely left the nest to take their place in the circle of life. I wonder if any will nest or bed down in my garden. I can only hope.
And, I hope you enjoy signs of new life and nature in your backyards and beyond.