This column is by Esther Lutz, University of Illinois Extension, Coles County Master Naturalist.
It seems that spring has finally arrived in East Central Illinois. Things are greening up and
and long unseen creatures are starting to venture out into the open again. The cool nights burst with the sounds of amphibian mating calls, and we wake up to the chirps and warbles of bird songs in the early morning.
Anxious gardeners are itching to work the wet soil and start sowing those early vegetable crops. Some have already started the spring planting ritual, and tiny green seedlings will soon be popping up in neat rows and raised beds in our backyards and garden plots. It will be a welcome and refreshing change from the gray, bare surroundings of late winter.
The trouble is, we are not the only beings that are happy to finally see the new growth of plant life all around us, especially the new shoots and sprouts in our treasured backyard gardens. We've got some visitors lurking among the bushes and shrubs and occasionally hopping out into the grassy areas. They look cute and appear harmless, but not everyone shares the opinion that they should be welcomed with open arms into our backyard habitats. Those furry, brown, twitchy-nosed varmints always seem to show up in all the wrong places – just when things begin to take off and really start growing. So what do we do?
Sylvilagus floridanus – Eastern Cottontail Rabbit
Our most widely distributed cottontail species in Illinois, the Eastern Cottontail is approximately 15 to 19 inches long and weighs two to four pounds. It appears gray or brownish, but it really has a grizzled blend of white, gray, brown, and black guard hairs over a soft grayish underfur. The ears are equal to or shorter than the length of the head from the nose to the neck. The feet are whitish-brown, with hind feet much larger than the forefeet. The tail is dark on top and white underneath, its resemblance to a little cottonball being responsible for the rabbit's common name. Males and females are similar in size and color. Because they have large incisor teeth similar to squirrels, rats, and mice, many people think of them as rodents. They have an additional second pair of smaller incisors behind the first pair, however, and this difference causes them to be classified not as rodents, but as lagomorphs.
Females can give birth to three to six litters per year, with each gestation lasting 28 days. They breed from February through September. The three to five young are born naked and helpless in a shallow, cup-shaped depression lined with grasses and fur. The nests are well-hidden in grassy areas, and the mother only visits to attend to them at dusk and dawn. Her milk is very rich and nourishing and sustains the babies for hours. To feed them, she stands over the nest and they reach up to nurse from her. Babies leave the nest at about four to five weeks old to explore their surroundings, while the mother teaches them what to eat and how to survive in the environment. The female raises the young entirely on her own. Favored habitat includes brushy
fencerows, brush or junk piles, field edges, and backyards where cover and food is adequate.
They are known to run for cover in a zigzag pattern when startled, and spend their entire lives in an area of ten acres or less, sometimes not venturing far from the same backyard in urban areas. Most will not live past 12 to 15 months in the wild.
What are the telltale signs of rabbits in the garden?
During the spring, rabbits seem to prefer young, tender, growing vegetation such as garden plants (peas, beans, lettuce, beets, carrots), tulips, and grass. Of course, any vegetation is fair game when it comes to a hungry rabbit, but they seem to shy away from corn, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, rhubarb, and grapes when something more tasty is nearby. Signs include delicately nibbled leaves and stems on young plants, with stems cleanly cut usually at an angle. Shrubs and young trees will show chewed tree bark near ground level – young fruit trees are a favorite. Sometimes small round fecal droppings resembling black "peas" can be found in an area as well.
How can we discourage rabbits from causing heartache in our gardens?
Removing easy hiding places like brush and stone piles and tall grass areas will make your yard less appealing. If there's a particular plant or crop you know they can't resist, focus on protecting just that area with a cover of garden fabric or mesh fencing (chicken wire). Encircle the bottoms of small tree trunks with 3/4 inch mesh fencing at least 3 or 4 feet up and buried 4 to 5 inches below the surface. Repellants like hot pepper spray, garlic spray, or predator urine can help but must be re-applied every few days or after a rain. (There are effective repellants commercially available as well.) Fencing the entire yard or garden with 2 to 3 foot fencing ( 3/4 inch mesh), and buried 4 to 6 inches deep to discourage burrowing will usually succeed in keeping them out.
Rabbits can be a nuisance , but for nature-conscious homeowners, the best solution is a friendly and peaceful coexistence. The main challenge with these furry neighbors is to keep them from viewing our gardens as fodder solely for their dining pleasure. If we intensify our efforts in the early season, then we'll probably have fewer problems later on as stems and leaves gain enough growing time to toughen up and get ahead of the rabbits. It's really a matter of getting to know the culprit and keeping several "tools in your toolbox" in order to keep them from enjoying your favorite plants. If all else fails and Bugs Bunny seems to be getting the best of us no matter what we do, there is still one last solution – we can always plant enough for all of us to share.