Rabbit deities abound in mythology, sometimes as tricksters and often as a symbol of fertility. What childless couple wouldn’t want to be able to “breed like rabbits”? The rabbit is the fourth sign in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac and people born in the year of the rabbit are said to be quiet, reserved and introspective.
In Celtic mythology rabbits were held to be inhabited by underground spirits. They were sacred for their reproductive habits and as symbols of health and prosperity. This is probably where the idea of the lucky rabbit’s foot came from, although, as the local wag will quickly point out, the sacrifice wasn’t so lucky for the rabbit.
As gardeners, the rabbit has not been so revered. In fact, Mr. Cottontail is a nuisance at best and a menace of demon proportions at worst. And when Mrs. Cottontail moves in, well, their sexual proclivities are nothing short of scandalous.
This reputation is well deserved. Mr. Cottontail can’t wait to procreate and is capable of impregnating the long-suffering female on the same day she gives birth. Not only that, but rabbit society has not rules against incest. Daddy rabbit has a keen appetite for his maturing daughters at about six months when they reach puberty. He starts thinking about love as early as February. I guess there’s not much to do in those underground burrows after a long cold winter with only the daily foray into the outdoors looking for food.
Nor is Mommy rabbit the most devoted or attentive of mothers. True, she will build a nice warm nest of grasses, lined with her own soft fur, where she will give birth after 28 to 32 days of pregnancy. But after that, she spends only about five minutes a day, usually after dusk or very early in the morning, feeding her young litter of two to seven babies. In fairness, her milk is very rich and that is all it takes to fill those tiny tummies and she stays away partly to protect the family. Rabbits sweat through the pads of their feet, leaving a conveniently tell-tale trail for predators to follow. The babies, however, have no scent to attract trouble.
The most common rabbit in most gardens is the cottontail. And their babies, called kits, are born hairless and with their eyes closed. These open after 10 day to two weeks, but he kits are not weaned until about eight weeks, even though the kits begin to venture outside the nest at about four weeks.
(Cottontails usually live in underground colonies, but if your observations are contrary to that then your bunny may actually be a hare. Hares deliver wide-eyed furry babies in above ground nests and generally live alone.)
During her lifetime, Mrs. Cottontail can have as many as 200 babies, delivered in three to four (and as many as seven!) litters a year. Although, if all goes well, and predators are not numerous, a female cottontail can live to about 10 years, they stop procreating after about six years.
Rabbits have well developed senses for staying alive and safe from predators – which is what most of their day is about in the wild. That and eating. Their hearing is especially keen, those long ears are very like antennae and can turn to capture the slightest sound. They are very attuned to higher pitched sounds. This makes up for their less than perfect eyesight. Although rabbits have a wide field of vision and can actually see behind them (just like parrots), they lack depth perception and actually have a blind spot directly in front of them. This may be why you can walk right up to a rabbit from directly in front and they seem to brazenly ignore you. Fact is, the closer you get, the less they can see (they are also hyperopic or farsighted).
Their sense of smell is amazing with 100 million scent cells to aid them and they also have about 17,000 to 18,000 taste buds (as compared to our 9,000) with which to detect sweet, sour, bitter and salt. They love sweet. In the wild, they can detect toxic plants and stay away from them. They have nerve endings all over their bodies making them very sensitive to touch, and their whiskers are the final weapon in their arsenal of self-protection detection tools. These also aid them in negotiating underground in the dark.
One of their less endearing culinary habits is that of eating their own night droppings as a defence strategy. In summer their favourite foods are clover, plantain, vetch, aster and various grasses. They do display an appetite for tender annuals in springtime and they seem to adore the first tulips most as much as I do, but as the season wears on, they return to the lawn where they happily munch on the clover my husband has never been able to eradicate. (Thank goodness!) They have also shown a distinct preference for painted daisies and I wonder if this is because this plant contains pyrethrins, often used to kill insect pests. It might be a good natural anti-flea agent.
In winter, they generally subsist on the bark of willow, alder, aspen and hazelnut. I ultimately gave up on trying to grow cistena cherry, which they would pare down to ground level every winter. This past winter, I left some parsley and other herbs hanging over the edges of pots and this seemed to provide a particularly welcome treat during the coldest days. I would see one of the tribe standing on hind legs munching away in midday, safe from dogs and cats in my back yard.
How do you keep these guys out of the garden? The answer is, you don’t unless you are very determined and vigilant. All the remedies – hot concoctions, human hair, bone meal and blood meal, garlic or lavender sprays are only effective for a short time after they are applied and certainly not past a good rainfall. If you want to protect your price shrubs or favourite tulips, the only surefire cure is a wire mesh fence – and some rabbits have been known to chew through those. They don’t care if such habits are bad for their teeth because their incisors continue to grow throughout their lifespan. And make the fence high – they can jump up to three feet or more! And they can run about 30 klicks an hour so chasing doesn’t work.
There are certain plants they are not particularly fond of, but in desperate times, they will eat even those as long as the plants aren’t toxic to them.
You could try scaring them to death – but I’m not sure just how you would do this. I refuse to turn off the music in the garden although they seem to like it, but so do the birds. Some people set up elaborate water alarm systems that go off when the rabbit approaches and others even install underground systems to send electrical shocks in their feet.
They are creatures of habit and will return again and again to the same place for the same experience, even if it’s not so pleasant – so I don’t think these shock treatments really work.
My strategy is to plant daffodils and foxgloves in gardens I want them stay out of in springtime, and to allow clover to fill the lawn (it’s pretty and really green). Somehow we’ve learned to get along and let’s face, it, they are pretty cute.
Besides, my granddaughter Claire like them. And that’s good enough for me.