We all know that Spring is prime time for many wild animals to bring their babies into the world. We can see new fawns, bear cubs, hatchling birds, and many other new arrivals soon after they make their way into the world. Last year Frank Indiviglio wrote an article on “orphaned” babies in the Spring and what to do (or not do) about them, but one animal that may require a little more info is one of the most common babies found in backyards this time of year…baby rabbits, or “kits”.
People often mistake young rabbits as helpless and abandoned, ususally because their found alone and in the open. Several times each year we have patrons that present us with wild rabbits they come across while mowing the lawn, or that were discovered by the family dog or cat and rescued before becoming a mid-morning snack. While people have the best of intentions, removing the babies from the area where they are found often creates even more of a problem for the little guys.
Mom Knows Best
Anyone who lives in a suburban setting can vouch for the success of cottontail rabbits in the wild. I can walk into my backyard any day and count multiple cottontails within eyeshot, grazing or resting in the shade of my shubs and trees. They are surprisingly successful and prolific, despite their seemingly haphazard way of raising their broods. Females create their nests, also called “forms”, in rather open areas, sometimes in plain view, of loosley piled grasses and fur. Once the babies are deposited in the nest the mother only visits them about twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the evening, to allow them to feed for a few minutes on her rich milk. Her infrequent, short visits keep the nest safe as the attention of predators is kept away from the location. Otherwise, they are pretty much left to fend for themselves, remaining quiet and still unless disturbed. The babies remain in the shallow nest, insulated by the mother’s downy fur, for 3 to 4 weeks until they are able to venture out to explore and the mother weans them. They may be found in and around the nest periodically for a week or two after they are weaned until they move on.
What to do or or when to intervene
So, what do you do if you should happen to find yourself faced with an adorable kit or kits in your backyard? There are several things to consider before you whisk the babies away from their present location. First of all, carefully inspect the rabbit and its surroundings. If your pet has found or disturbed the nest, remove your pet from the area to prevent any further stress or disturbance. Try to gauge how old the babies are–try to do this visually, handling them as little as possible (if at all), to avoid stressing them further. Newborns are “naked” and pink, but develop a full coat in about a week, their eyes open in about 10 days, and they can be on their own at about 4 weeks. Babies still in thier mother’s care may have a small white blaze on their head.
If the foundling is unharmed, tuck them back into the nest and fix the nesting material as well as you can before leaving the area. You can even move the nest a short distance (not more than 10 or 15 feet) if you think it will put the babies in a safer position. Simply create a shallow hole or indentation in the ground and use the hair and dried grasses from the original nest to line the hole. Cover the babies loosely with some of the material. The mother should come back to find the nest in the night, and may even move the nest again on her own. Place two small sticks over the nest in an “#” arrangement…this is a common trick to tell if the mother has returned in the night as she’ll usually have to disturb them when she finds the babies. At the very least the babies should be healthy and warm if you see them the next day. Keep pets away from the nest until you know the babies have gone off on their own.
There are some situations when the kits should be removed and taken to a vet or licensed rehabilitator. If the mother doesn’t appear to have tended to the babies after 24 hours, check their condition. If a baby is injured, cold, or dehydrated, contact a vet or animal rehabilitator for assistance. Do not try to feed the rabbit, that is best left to a skilled rehabilitator. The harsh fact is that injured kits and kits taken from a nest away from their mother have a very low survival rate, especially when very young. Their best chance for survival if uninjured is to stay put and wait for the mother to return and care for them.
I hope this information helps! Please feel free to share experiences and questions in the comments section below.
Until next time,