What is a rabbit doing in my yard?
Because Idaho’s mountain cottontails and white- and black-tailed jackrabbits can breed repeatedly from late winter through summer and can eat everything from tender vegetable shoots to tree bark, what they’re doing in your yard is probably eating, and reproducing. Cottontails can produce a new litter (typically, three to five young) as swiftly as monthly reproducing generally February through August. Jackrabbits take a little longer, 43 days gestation period, but may have up to 8 young per litter. Woody and dense vegetation appeals to cottontails, while jackrabbits favor open rangelands and cultivated fields. Although cottontails often seek shelter-hunkering down under brush piles or dense shrubs, hiding in sheds or hightailing it down the proverbial rabbit hole-jackrabbits typically protect themselves by fleeing (at speeds up to 40 miles per hour).
Benefits and conflicts
Rabbits can be fun to watch, if you’re not watching them eat something you’d rather they left alone. During the growing season, they’re particularly partial to tulips, carrots, peas, beans, lettuce, beets, and grass, although there’s not much in the garden or landscape they won’t eat if they’re sufficiently hungry. In fall and winter, they turn to young trees and woody shrubs, cleanly clipping off small stems, slicing off buds, or gnawing on the bark of young trees or shrubs. They can completely girdle and kill vulnerable woody plants.
Strategies for coexistence and control
Habitat modification: Remove piles of brush and stone and patches of tall weeds, particularly around vulnerable, newly planted trees or shrubs. Ironically, this sort of garden cleanliness discourages cottontails but pleases jackrabbits.
Fencing: Fortunately, rabbits are relatively simple to exclude from vegetable, herb, or flower patches with inexpensive fences or domes made of 1-inch or smaller-mesh chicken-wire. In the summer, a 2-foot-tall fence will deter cottontails and a 3-foot-tall fence will ward off jackrabbits. In the winter, you’ll want to build the fence higher to reflect your area’s anticipated snow depth. Either stake the bottom end of the fence tightly to the ground or splay it outward, burying the bent edge about 4 inches underground to thwart digging. Commercial cylinders or home-made cylinders of 1/4-inch hardwire cloth will protect young trees, as long as the cylinders are tall enough to keep rabbits’ incisors from reaching above them and far enough from the trunk to keep rabbits from chewing through them.
Frightening devices and repellents: A fleet-footed dog is best; many other repellents have been tried, with far more variable results. Read the label carefully; most repellents aren’t intended for use on human food and many must be reapplied after rainfall or irrigation.
Trapping: If you know of a gardener who wants the company, cottontails are easy to lure into traps and relocate. Be aware that the ecological niche the dearly departed rabbits will leave in your yard will most likely be filled by neighboring rabbits.
For more information
- Prevention and Control of Rabbit Damage, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
- Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage: Cottontail Rabbits, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension Division