Even before last February’s blizzard we were visited regularly by robins who were meticulously combing through the holly hedge in search of berries. I don’t know if these were winter robins or if they just decided to migrate north a bit earlier than usual. At any rate, they looked a little forlorn after consuming all the berries and their furtive searches for food tugged at my heartstrings. What could I feed them? I started putting purple grapes on the hedge and that didn’t work. Scattered handfuls of blueberries and strawberries did not pique their interest either although I always seem to be competing with wildlife for these fruits in my garden.
My last attempt at food offerings was a handful of old craisins and raisins. It worked! They gobbled up the craisins first and then picked at the raisins. Who knew robins were such picky eaters! So I have been buying a couple of packs of craisins each week and tossing some out by the holly hedge each morning much to the delight of our resident robin flock.
A few weeks ago, shortly after putting out the daily craisin supply, I looked out the back door and there was the cutest rabbit, happily munching on the craisins much to the dismay of the robins who were still brave enough to grab any 3 or more feet away from the rabbit. He (or she) has been coming back pretty much every morning for breakfast. We have also noticed him under the bird feeder so it seems that lack of food is not a problem for this bunny.
Most likely the rabbit is an Eastern Cottontail although I can’t rule out the slighter possibility of him being a New England Cottontail. These are the only 2 species of rabbits in our region with the New England cottontail the only species native to Connecticut. Apparently the Eastern cottontail was introduced sometime in the late 1800’s or so. Both increased in population until farms started to decline and agricultural lands were overtaken by shrubs and trees. Now the New England cottontail is in decline and in 2008 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service designated it as a candidate for threatened or endangered status. The Eastern cottontail is holding its own.
Since 2000, the CT DEEP has been documenting the distribution of the 2 rabbit species and working with other state, federal and non-profit agencies to restore habitat and provide New England rabbit education to land owners. Since 90% of land in Connecticut is privately owned, it is critical that private landowners also participate in restoration efforts. The decline of New England cottontails is thought to be due to habitat loss and fragmentation and possibly linked to the spread of some invasive plant species like multiflora rose. While not mentioned in their report, I wonder if predators like coyotes and feral cats might also be contributing to the decline of the New England cottontail?
Physically there is not much difference between the 2 species. Both are between 1 ½ and 3 pounds with reddish-brown to greyish-brown fur and a short, fluffy tail. (Speaking of which, a fellow co-worker was teaching some children about plants and plant products but when she asked where cotton comes from one child answered cottontails!) According to the DEEP, about half of the Eastern cottontail population has a small white patch on its forehead. Other than that, differentiating between the New England and Eastern cottontails is difficult. DNA or skull comparisons are used to make positive identifications.
Apparently adults are solitary in nature and breeding season starts this month. Female rabbits will create nests in dense grass and line them with more grass and fur. They can have 2 to 4 litters per year averaging 3 to 8 young each. Amazingly the blind and helpless newborns are weaned and totally independent in just 4 to 5 weeks. During the summer they feed on grasses, clover and other herbaceous plants and have been known to sample tender vegetable crops like peas and beans. During the winter they feed on twigs, bark and buds – and craisins!It will be interesting to see how long our furry-eared friend stays around. I may need to think fencing options or planting lots of extra beans in areas away from the garden. Like the Easter bunny, I don’t want all my eggs in one basket!