Rabbits showed up at our place for the first time this summer from I don’t know where.
We live at an intersection, not just of two roads but of fields, forest, and suburban lawns. We’ve had all kinds of wildlife pass through over the years, from tiny toads to cruising coyotes.
(I don’t count the bear that inhabits the shadows of my peripheral vision on nighttime trips to the compost bin out under the spruces. It keeps its distance, evanescent, a dark nearly imperceptible id. I’m hoping it stays that way and doesn’t coalesce into one of the real bears that have moved into this area. Until it does, I will keep it off the visitors’ list.)
The newcomer rabbits turned up first at the far edge of the yard, darting in and out of the unruly grape vines that overwhelmed a rhododendron there, moving like shy but curious children, who venture only so far from their cover in the pleats of mother’s skirt.
There is a bumper crop of clover in the grass this year, and the rabbits have judged the reward of eating it worth the risk of being eaten. Predators are everywhere, looking down on them from higher up on the food chain. Rabbits don’t die of old age in the wild. They are a staple in the diets of red foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, fishers, mink, weasels, and bobcats. They also live under mortal threat from domestic cats and dogs and their angry gardener owners. But oh, that clover! It is so good! And rabbit life is short – three years with luck – so why not?
One afternoon on a trip to the barn in search of a screwdriver, I surprised one of them munching his clover salad beside a bordering hedge. Responding as prey animals sometimes do, he froze, allowing me to get quite close before he employed his other survival strategy: zig-zagging quick like a bunny to the hedge. He had that beautiful brindle-brown coat of cottontails. I was hoping he might be a New England cottontail, a species that once was plentiful in this area, but which has all but disappeared from the region that gave it its name. The species is now under consideration for endangered or threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.
New England cottontails and the more common Eastern cottontails are almost identical. New England cottontails are not as big as their more plentiful cousins. They have shorter ears and smaller eyes, though these distinctions are hard to spot in the field when you don’t have one of each sitting side by side. But it is a fair assumption that the rabbits in our yard are Eastern cottontails based on the fact that they are in our yard.
Of the two species, the wide-eyed Eastern cottontails are far more adept at evading predators. Some researchers suggest that their larger field of view allows them to spot threats sooner, giving them a head start on survival. It may also have given them, over time, the confidence to venture out into open spaces, like suburban yards, to forage for tastier fare than can be found in the undergrowth.
New England cottontails, on the other hand, are thicket dwellers, sticking almost exclusively to the protective tangles of brambles, shrubs and trees that grow up in the young forests that emerge when areas cleared by fires or farmers or, in recent times, developers are allowed to go wild.
More than 75 percent of the New England cottontail’s habitat has been lost over the past half century, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Much of what remains is fragmented and isolated by mature forests in state and national parks and by the patchwork of development that has overspread New England’s once-rural landscapes. The loss of these thicketed habitats has also put stress on other native wildlife species, including woodcocks, brown thrashers, towhees, redstarts, indigo buntings, and box and wood turtles.
Charles Fergus, a wildlife author working with the Wildlife Management Institute estimates that Connecticut may still have a couple of thousand New England cottontails, which is more than all the other New England states combined. The species is believed to have disappeared completely from Vermont.
Since most of Connecticut’s open lands are in private hands, the survival of the New England cottontail as a species, along with the many other wildlife species that share its habitat, may depend on private land management practices. New England cottontails need at least 20 interconnected acres of thicket to thrive and perhaps as little as 10 to 12 acres to survive in an area, according to John Litvaitis, a University of New Hampshire professor has studied the species for decades.
The US Fish and Wildlife Services, in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has published A Landowner’s Guide to New England Cottontail Habitat Management by Margaret Arbuthnot for those who would like to know more about what they can do help protect this native species.
Why should we care about the fate of the New England cottontail when we have a nearly identical replacement scampering about our lawns? Species come and species go, isn’t that what Darwin showed us? Nature makes its selections and life goes on. And yet.
There is something about this rabbit living an increasingly lonely life out there in the diminishing thickets of New England. He is native. One of us. Part of the 50-million-year-old taxonomic order of lagomorphs (rabbits are not rodents) that overspread a newly sculpted New England stalking the young growth that greened up the grey granite and till left in the wake of the last ice age 13,000 years ago. And it isn’t nature that is making choices that will deny it a future – it is us.
Like that real-or-not-real id bear lurking in the shadows by the compost, the extinction of species in the face of human indifference lingers in the consciousness, nearly imperceptible, as a threat: species come and species go, and we are a species, too. The unsettling aspect of this realization is that the scale and often-irreversible effects of human indifference on ecosystems and the interdependence of living things is itself a kind of predation that threatens not just the lower regions of the food chain, but the chain itself to which we ourselves are inextricably linked.
We should rethink our strategy. Do we continue to freeze in place? Or do we try something else – quick like a bunny?