Not too long ago, slugs and deer were the primary threats to our yards and gardens. Now a new threat has hopped on the scene in the form of the Eastern Cottontail.
The rabbits made their way to Issaquah's demonstration garden at Pickering Barn two summers ago, and volunteer crews scrambled to erect chicken wire barriers to protect the vegetable crops. At the same time, residents all over Issaquah reported seeing the rabbits for the first time.
Local predators are benefiting from the arrival of the rabbits, but our vegetables and decorative shrubs are not. Resident rabbits can easly eat an entire bed of garden plants overnight. Fortunately, we can take practical measures to protect many of our plants while enjoying the antics of these undeniably adorable creatures.
The Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is a small brown rabbit that is native to the southeastern half of the United States. Its population was limited when trappers and colonists first arrived on our eastern coast, but the rabbit numbers increased rapidly as settlers cleared the forests to cultivate land for themselves - and the rabbits.
The Eastern Cottontail quickly became a favorite among hunters, who introduced the species to other states. The rabbits remained east of the Rockies, however, until the Whitman County Game Commission introduced 12 pair of Eastern Cottontails in 1926 and 1927. By 1928, the rabbits were purportedly abundant around the town of Pullman, and they have been spreading throughout Washington ever since.
We tend to see Eastern Cottontails in the early morning and evening when the dim light makes foraging safer. It is at these times when the mother rabbits visit their young. If we pause by the garden at dusk, we'll see the rabbits emerge from beneath shrubs where they shelter in the underbrush or in burrows created by other animals. They are vegetarian, and forage primarily on leafy greens in the summer. In the winter, they switch to buds, twigs, and bark, including the bark of our ever-present Himalayan Blackberry. They do not hibernate.
In Washington, female Eastern Cottontails typically produce four litters each during spring and summer. Each litter contains four to seven offspring, known as kits. According to the Ohio Division of Wildlife, if all the kits survived, a single pair of Eastern Cottontail rabbits would produce 350,000 offspring in 5 years. Only a small percentage of the kits survive to adulthood, however, and the others fall prey to domestic cats, skunks, racoons, weed whackers, and lawn mowers. The adults are a favorite meal for hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats, and domestic dogs. A good portion of the populaton is killed by cars. Although the rabbits seldom live more than a year, the Eastern Cottontail's rate of reproduction has enabled its population to spread unabated.
It is best to learn to live with our new rabbit neighbors in relative harmony. They are here to stay.
Protect your garden. There are several practical steps you can take to protect your vegetable crops or favorite shrub from the rabbits.
- Build a rabbit fence. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has some suggestions. In addition, you can visit the City of Issaquah's demonstration garden at Pickering Barn to see an innovative kind of fencing built by Seattle Tilth volunteers that can help keep the rabbits out while keeping it easy for you to get in.
- Use a repellent. There are a variety of repellents on the market suitable for organic gardens. Most are made of red pepper, predator urine, or putrescent egg. You can make your own by soaking cayenne pepper flakes in hot water to produce a tea to spray on your plants.
- Plant varieties that are unsavory to rabbits. Many native plants, as well as a variety of perennials, herbs, annuals, and bulbs, are safe from their voracious appetites.
Save wounded or injured rabbits. Domestic dogs and cats are among the primary predators of rabbits. All too often, our companions bring home traumatized or injured rabbits. A non-profit organization called PAWS is the best place to take these rabbits. The organization will humanely euthanize rabbits that are too injured to be rehabilitated, and will nurse the rest until they are healthy enough to be re-released into the wild.