Normally, you might go for your daily neighborhood stroll and see a bunny or two in neighbors’ yards. This summer, you’re just as likely to return from a walk to report that you saw nine bunnies. In one yard.
Are we all seeing quadruple, or are there more rabbits than usual out and about this year?
Mark Turner, who lives in Raleigh, tweeted last week that one of his wife’s friends said she counted almost four dozen rabbits on a recent morning run.
“Where are the predators? Hey hawks — what gives? Coyotes — where u at?” he tweeted.
Another Raleigh tweeter posted earlier in May, “I’ve seen more bunnies since moving to Raleigh than I did in 6 months of living in the mountains. Fewer big predators, I guess?”
Maybe, but maybe not.
Turns out the proliferation of rabbits likely has nothing to do with fewer predators or any kind of pandemic-induced reduction in car traffic. It’s just ... Mother Nature.
A rabbit boom or bust?
According to local wildlife experts, the rabbit population is cyclical.
Some years we see more bunnies, and some years we see fewer — it all depends on environmental conditions. If conditions are just right, rabbits can breed multiple times in one season, resulting in more rabbits. (The cliche “multiply like rabbits” is a cliche for a reason).
Greg Batts, the District 3 wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, says he has been asked this question several times already this summer.
Rabbits, he said, tend to go through a “boom and bust” cycle.
“They’ll be really high numbers and then they’ll bottom out, and then they’ll climb back up again,” he said.
There are a lot of factors that contribute to a possible “boom and bust” rabbit population:
▪ Food availability. “When we see lots of rabbits on the landscape, that’s a lot of mouths to feed,” Batts said. When food resources are low, then you have low productivity, so the animal population is low. When you have a lot of food, productivity goes up as well.
▪ Conditions when young. Batts points out that baby bunnies (also called kittens) spend their first couple of weeks in a nest in the grass. When we get heavy rainfall, as we did recently, yards may flood and the bunny will get wet. “Hypothermia kills a lot of bunnies,” Batts said.
▪ Low survivability means more reproduction. Batts says it is estimated that only 15 to 20% of the bunnies that are born will even live to see adulthood. The annual mortality rate for rabbits can be 80 to 90%, he said.
And that’s why rabbits breed multiple times a year.
One rabbit can breed up to seven times in one year (with the season being January or February through September), and they may have anywhere from five to 12 bunnies (or kittens) per litter. (Though five is more common.)
Plus, Batts said, factor in that a female bunny reaches sexual maturity at two to three months old.
“A rabbit that’s born in January, in March can be breeding and contributing to the population,” Batts said.
Other reasons we are seeing more rabbits
Michael Cove, curator of mammals at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, adds a couple more reasons why people may be seeing more bunnies lately:
▪ Earlier litters. Cove says with our mild winter and more rain in the very early spring, rabbit reproduction could have happened a little earlier this year.
“It could be that we had an early season and mothers could be on their second or third litters already,” Cove said.
And speaking of the survivability rate, Cove added, “If survival is high, that could look like a ton of rabbits.”
▪ We’re paying more attention. Cove also believes we could all just be seeing more rabbits right now because many people are still working from home and noticing wildlife in their yards more.
Rabbits enjoy the ‘human shield’
Cove said that another reason we see so many rabbits in an urban or suburban environment is the “human shield” factor.
“The idea of the human shield is that high prey species — such as rabbits and squirrels — use human environments because of extra resources like plants and gardens, but also as a safe haven because in most circumstances, a lot of predators tend to avoid humans.”
That could be one reason why Eastern Cottontails, the rabbits we’re seeing in urban and suburban environments in this part of the state, are so visible. By contrast, the Appalachian Cottontail that lives in the mountains and the Coastal Marsh Rabbit that lives near the coast, are not as visible or “observable” by humans.
But it’s hard to say if we’re really in the middle of a rabbit “boom” right now, Cove said.
“There are more rabbits, or more observable rabbits for sure,” Cove said. “But it’s hard to track the abundance of these things because they do have fairly short lifespans, so their survival strategy is to reproduce as much as possible. And they’re great at that.”