Where Do All the Rabbits Go?
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, July 25, 2009.)
People are saying there are soooo many rabbits this year. Cottontails hop all over the yard, all along the road, and many end up as road kill. Believe it or not, someone wrote a field guide to road kill. (It’s satirical.) But you don’t need a field guide to identify flattened rabbits – the cottony tail is a dead giveaway.
Some hunters must feel like Elmer Fudd chasing that one
"wascally wabbit." They wonder why they see so many all
summer long, and then most are gone come October.
All puns aside, we do have lots of rabbits this year. We do every year. Rabbits are extremely prolific. We think of them being born in spring, but even at the end of July I’m still seeing lots of them that weren’t born much before yesterday. And more will be born before summer’s end. Looking like tiny adults, they sit munching on greens at the salad bars that are perilously close to nearly every road.
For many hunters of my generation, rabbits were their first game animals. I remember as a high schooler rushing home at the end of the day and traipsing back up to Warren Area High School to hunt rabbits. I’d walk across the football team’s practice field with my beagle and my Ithaca pump shotgun, wave at Coach Shea, then hunt near the cross-country track above the school. (Don’t try that today.)
My beagle was on the slow side, so she didn’t put much pressure on the rabbits. Often a rabbit would take her out of earshot, but soon I’d hear the dog’s full cry and she’d always bring it back around. Sometimes I waited 5 minutes after shooting before her nose unraveled the trail of the dead bunny and she found her way back to me.
For many reasons, people don’t hunt rabbits as much as previous generations did. Keeping a dog is expensive today. It’s hard to find time for training. Many more activities compete for the attention of today’s youth. The schedules of modern two-income households make caring for the dog more challenging. And fewer places are available to hunt with a dog.
Some hunters who do pursue rabbits must feel like Elmer Fudd chasing that one "wascally wabbit." They wonder why they see so many all spring and summer long, and then most are gone come October. The reason is simple. Rabbits are under threat from the moment they are born.
Domestic cats and dogs take a share of them before or soon after they leave the nest. Crows, when they discover a nest, harass a mother rabbit endlessly. She’s no match for even one relentless crow, and usually the ruckus a crow creates draws more crows. We tend to think of crows as scavengers rather than predators, but whenever a crow discovers a nest, it’s unlikely any baby bunnies will survive.
If the young survive the nest, life doesn’t get any easier. The adage about safety in numbers doesn’t hold true for rabbits, because those high spring and summer populations actually insure that dumb bunnies will be caught and eaten every day. Rabbits are a fast-food store for hungry foxes, coyotes, owls and hawks – a McDonald’s for carnivores.
When rabbits live near residential areas more of them manage to avoid the predators that feast on their tasty, tender meat. But there, rabbits bump into one more unsympathetic foe – vengeful vegetable gardeners who don’t care that rabbits are cute and cuddly.
I live in a spot that used to be great rabbit hunting. The rabbits are still around and I see them every day. So does my little wiener dog Remy, who quivers with excitement at the sight of br’er rabbit.
But these rabbits aren’t the ones we used to hunt. Those are long gone. The houses have been here for more than 20 years, but two years is a long time for a rabbit to live.
Watching rabbits nibble clover might make us think they live in a world where peace guides the planets and love steers the stars, but don’t be deceived. Even in adulthood, bunnies are the bottom of the food chain. They live in a vicious world, and they’re extremely vulnerable 365 days a year.
Their numbers will continue to dwindle each day until spring, when a high fertility rate will be their main insurance policy against extinction.