“Put the bunnies back!”
~ A wildlife rehabber’s mantra when taking rabbit calls
Eastern Cottontails make their nests in burrows, a depression in a garden and even in the middle of a lawn. The nest is usually covered with dried grass and bits of the mother’s fur.
Eastern Cottontail Rabbits are very difficult to raise in a rehab centre due to their sensitive and delicate nature. The stress of captivity and human handling can be quite detrimental, and success rates are typically <20%. Letting mother take care of them naturally is their best chance at survival.
The good news is that a nest of cottontail rabbits in your yard is a temporary situation, lasting only about four weeks from birth.
When are baby rabbits old enough to survive on their own?
An Eastern Cottontail Rabbit that is about four inches long, round and fluffy, eyes open and ears erect (100g or about the size of a small apple) is ready to be away from its mother, and should be left alone or moved to a safer location with ground cover for hiding.
When to rescue
A baby rabbit needs rescuing if:
- a crow or cat was involved
- a dog was involved and the baby is injured
- it is showing other signs of illness or injury
Not seeing the mother rabbit is NOT necessarily a sign that the babies are abandoned. A mother rabbit leaves the nest during the day to draw attention away from the young. The mother usually returns when dark, at dusk and dawn, to nurse the bunnies so it is normal to never see the mother. Follow the instructions below to see if the mother is coming back to feed them.
If you uncover a nest in your yard or garden
If you find or uncover a nest of cottontails and they show no signs of illness or injury, it is best to leave the babies where you found them and cover them back up with the nesting material. Do not move the nest since the mother will not find it. Rabbits do very poorly in captivity (<20% success rate) so their best chance for survival is to let the mother raise them. Babies are independent at 3-4 weeks old, so keep children and pets away from them for this short time.
If your cat or dog discovered a nest
If a cat discovered a nest, you know what to do – keep the cat indoors until the babies disperse.
If a dog discovered a nest, you and the dog can still enjoy the backyard while the baby bunnies are being raised by the mother:
- keep away from the yard or keep dogs on leash when its dark, just before dawn and after dusk when the mother is feeding the babies
- during the day, put a recycle bin on top of the nest, have a seat and enjoy watching the dogs romp safely in the yard; remove the bin when you go inside; do not leave the nest covered for too long in warm weather
Make sure the mother is coming back to feed them
To be sure, place 6 twigs on top of the whole nest in a tic-tac-toe pattern. If the twigs have been moved after the next feeding time (dawn or dusk), the mother has returned to feed them.
If the mother has not returned, follow the baby mammal temporary care instructions.