Sometimes it’s better to see a pest problem as the normal way nature enters and adapts to a particular niche in the environment created by things like availability of food, cover, and absence of predators. Animals don’t appear magically on the scene for no reason, they simply exploit available food resources and habitat. Once we understand this, we can learn about them and adapt ourselves to their habits. That way, we not only enjoy wildlife but can minimize its impact on our homes and gardens.
Rabbits Habitat and History
The Eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, is one of the most common rabbit species in North America. It’s found in abundance over the entire eastern half of the United States, as well as into parts of central and South America. Recognizable instantly from the pure white fur on the underside of its tail, it is otherwise superbly camouflaged in shades of gray and brown. Most adult cottontails in the northeast average about 2 pounds, with larger specimens of about 3 pounds common in the south. In some instances, specimens of over 4 pounds have been recorded.
Eastern cottontails are active and feed nocturnally and in conditions of low light, such as dawn and dusk. They require ready access to escape cover, such as low vegetation, scrubby ground cover and brush piles, but they prefer to browse for food in open grassy fields and meadows. Rabbits dig relatively shallow holes in soft earth, well hidden under brush, lining their nests with leaves, grass, and fur.
Grasses comprise a large portion of the diet of the cottontail, especially the tender shoots of new grass, but they are constantly browsing and will not miss any opportunity to eat a variety of shoots, leaves, flowers and buds, fruits and seeds. When tender shoots or green vegetation is scarce, they are happy to gnaw on bark and small twigs, preferring sweet sap varieties such as fruit trees, maple, and sweet birch.
Eastern cottontails are highly prolific breeders. Reproduction depends largely on temperature. In milder climates, the breeding season can be year round, while in New England it’s usually between March and September. The young gestate for barely a month, females produce up to 4 litters a year, with each litter containing anywhere from 1-12 kits. With favorable habitat, ready food sources, and lack of predation, the population of these rabbits can quickly explode.
Eastern cottontails can quickly decimate a vegetable garden, sometimes in a single night. The damage of these pests is most keenly felt early in the growing season when young plants are most vulnerable. Signs of rabbit activity include a generous scattering of pellets, which are dropped without regard during the cottontail’s normal activities, as well as plant damage that looks as though it was snipped with scissors, owing to the cottontail’s incisors which are sharp and mesh perfectly, clipping off buds or stems cleanly.
There is no commercially-sold rabbit repellent, but there are things you can do to deter them. Cottontails tend to avoid areas onto which something they find unpleasant has been sprayed. Common natural repellents include anything from coyote urine, to soapy water, vinegar, and cayenne pepper; but these need to be applied frequently, and it’s often reported that rabbits eventually become used to the smell and taste of these things.
Likewise, gardeners can certainly choose to plant vegetables and herbs that rabbits find unpleasant, such as rhubarb, tomatoes, garlic, hot peppers, basil, mint, and catnip. But cottontails will simply move along until they find something they do like. Gardeners have tried to create barriers of flowers that tend not to interest the pests, such as begonias, Sweet Alyssum or Vincas, but these don’t have a repellent effect. The cottontails will ignore them, and concentrate on something tasty planted nearby.
What does have a repellent effect are predators? And nothing will attract predators like abundant prey. If you notice your garden becoming overrun with baby rabbits, you’ll probably also begin to see foxes, owls and hawks, fishers, and even bobcats or coyotes move in. Domestic dogs and cats harass rabbits enough to keep the critters at bay too, and certainly, in the old days when people consumed more wild game, it was not uncommon for humans to be the predators.
Some people try to deal with a rabbit problem using humane traps, and relocation. The problem with that strategy is that you may be orphaning a nest full of babies, which may be out of sight.
Think Like Rabbits
Sometimes it pays to think like a rabbit. One of the ways rabbits avoid predators is to stay away from vegetation that will give up their position by sound or movement. So things that are dry and papery, such as dry leaves and straw mean danger because they rustle. You’ll notice that when threatened, sometimes a rabbit will freeze like a statue. This is a way to hide in plain sight rather than allow a predator to key in on their target with sound or movement.
When being attacked, a cottontail will run in a zigzag pattern, to try and confuse the predator, and it is thought that the high contrast of their white tails helps to confuse the pursuers.
There is no better or more economical way to keep rabbits out of the garden than good chicken wire, or wire mesh perimeter fence, bottom bent outward and sunk to a depth of at least 6″ under the soil, and at a height of about 3 feet. You can also protect individual plants or rows with cages, or mesh. Physical barriers are the most effective solution to keeping cottontails from destroying your crops.
You can also remove brush piles and other escape cover, which rabbits find attractive. Anyone who has done spring yard cleaning often has stories of coming upon a nest of baby rabbits while moving brush.
One strategy which is highly effective is fake snakes placed in the garden. They work like a charm!
Another strategy is to create meals for rabbits which they will find irresistible, or at least more enticing than the plants in your garden. It takes nothing more than some disposable chopsticks, a few lengths of kitchen string, and green cabbage. Try this inexpensive trick: Tightly roll a tender inner leaf of green cabbage around a chopstick (or bamboo skewer), like a cigar, leaving about half of the stick exposed at the bottom. Secure the cabbage with a piece of kitchen string. Take a few of these and “plant” them in a grassy area away from your garden. They will concentrate on the easy meal, and hopefully leave your plantings alone because trying to defeat your fence would require too much effort.
Do you have a clever way of deterring rabbits in your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Edward Higgins is a freelance writer, artist, home chef, and avid fly fisherman who lives outside of Portland, Maine. He studied at Skidmore College and Harvard University. His article 10 Best Edible Insects appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.