As habitat improvements accumulate, the future for rabbits (and rabbit hunting) and other wildlife will brighten.
Where have all the rabbits gone?
That's a common question among rabbit hunters. It's also a concern for those who enjoy watching rabbits around the farm and home.
Loss of habitat is a major part of the problem. Rabbit numbers decline when their habitat is destroyed, and over the past few decades, good rabbit habitat has disappeared at an unprecedented rate.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, settlers carved many small family farms from the wilderness. These provided ideal habitat for rabbits. Farmers and ranchers planted islands of grain and grass in the sea of forests, creating a healthy mix of woodlands, croplands, old fields and brushy edges. Cottontails thrived in the overgrown edges.
In more recent decades, rabbits suffered as financial pressures forced many landowners to focus on short-term profits to pay the bills. In the name of efficiency and economic survival, farmers enlarged their fields, removed fencerows, cleared woodlands or used them to graze cattle, and put odd corners of their farms into production. Housing developments, shopping districts, highways and other forms of human encroachment added to the onslaught.
Another serious factor affecting rabbits is the widespread use of fescue for pasture conversions and renovations. Fescue forms a dense, thick mat of vegetation, so rabbits can't seek shelter beneath it. In addition, fescue often is infected with a fungus associated with fescue toxicosis, a syndrome that may repress reproduction in mammals. Areas dominated by fescue have fewer cottontails.
Fortunately, habitat deterioration can be controlled and reversed. As a landowner, you can help by improving living conditions for cottontails on your property. Many species of wildlife will benefit each time you follow the suggestions offered. As habitat improvements accumulate, the future for rabbits and other wildlife will brighten.
Before you begin management work, it's important to understand that cottontail numbers may fluctuate wildly from year to year despite all your efforts. There may be a high population of rabbits one year and few the next in the same habitat. These ups and downs are dampened in areas of good habitat and most noticeable in areas of marginal habitat.
We still don't fully understand these population cycles, but they're often related to disease. What's important is knowing they probably will occur, even after you've done a substantial amount of habitat improvement.
To provide the things cottontails need, we must create areas where parcels of escape cover are interspersed with patches of dependable food plants. Providing water is less important. Although cottontails drink during hot, dry spells, they obtain most water they need from succulent plants they eat. They seem to draw sufficient moisture from the driest of diets, and lack of water is rarely a problem.
It's important that all habitat components be close together. The lushest patch of clover will fail to attract cottontails if it's in the middle of a large lawn. A brush pile isn't likely to be used if it's in the center of a plowed field. Rabbits feel secure only when food and escape cover are close together, so if danger threatens, they can reach cover with a few quick bounds on those powerful hind legs.
You can provide escape cover many ways. One of the best is creating brush piles.
When cutting firewood or clearing small openings, cut trees leaving a three-foot-high stump. Pile branches around the stump, laying one end of the limbs on the stump at an angle to the ground. Then pile the remaining cuttings at right angles on this supporting framework. This creates a brush pile with openings inside that can be used by rabbits.
Create living brush piles by cutting halfway through undesirable trees and pushing them over. Disperse these along edge areas on your land. A large brush pile doesn't benefit game as much as several smaller piles up to 5 feet in height and diameter.
Overgrown fencerows also provide excellent rabbit cover. Back when rail fences surrounded farms, rabbit habitat was abundant. Horse-drawn plows couldn't reach into rail fence corners, so a strip of land 20 or 30 feet wide was left to grow in tall weeds and native grasses. Blackberries, foxtails, panic grasses, broomsedge, sumac and wild grapes thrived in these old fencerows, as did cottontails.
Today, landowners can replenish these areas by leaving a strip at least as wide as their vehicle next to fences. These grown-up spots provide food, cover and travel lanes for small game. Plant trees, shrubs and warm-season grasses such as autumn olive, cedar, wild cherry, privet and switchgrass, and protect them from mowing, grazing and burning.
In pasture lands where cattle graze, add living fences of wild plum, blackberry, Russian olive, honeysuckle and cedar. At least two living fences or overgrown fencerows should exist for small-game management on each 30 to 40 acres of open pasture. Living fences offer shelterbelts from subfreezing temperatures, and rabbits use these areas extensively.
Landowners also should mow around islands of food and cover plants, leaving them for wildlife. Vegetation grown up in pastures since last summer need not be bushhogged again. Mow around these cover islands, leaving them for shelterbelts, nesting and feeding areas and travel lanes. Before cleaning your land in any way, consider how it might affect wildlife habitat on your property.
When native foods are in short supply, annual food plots are a real asset to rabbit production. They should be near brushy draws, corners of shrubby fencerows, edges of wooded areas or other spots with good cover nearby. Heavy cover, such as brush piles, can be added around the area.
Food plots are usually planted in narrow strips covering 1/8 to 1/4 acre. One practical program you can try uses 1/4-acre plots on rotation. A 1/2-acre area is set aside for the food plot, and each year, half is planted and the other half is allowed to grow annual weeds. This rotation provides native seeds and standing grain for food. It also makes fertilizer use more effective.
Bluegrass, corn, grain sorghum, ladino clover, orchard grasses, soybeans and wheat are some of the plants recommended for rabbit food plots. A row or two of your regular crop left standing near good cover is an easy way to provide rabbit food. In native plant stands, periodically mow long strips through dense brush and undergrowth to encourage growth of fresh, green, succulent plants.
Rabbits are eaten by many animals, including coyotes, foxes, bobcats, owls, hawks and snakes. Despite what many hunters think, however, predators have little effect on overall rabbit numbers. In fact, the opposite is true. When rabbits are numerous, their major predators increase and multiply. When rabbit numbers go down, predators decline.
Bobcats provide a good example of this predator/prey relationship. Rabbits are the bobcat's primary prey in many areas. When rabbits are scarce, more bobcat kittens are likely to die from malnutrition. When rabbits are abundant, more kittens live to adulthood. Rabbits influence bobcat populations, not vice versa.
If good escape cover is present, cottontails hold their own quite nicely, even when predators are abundant. In other words, by providing effective escape cover, you can control the effectiveness of predators, and that is all the predator control you'll need. Two or three brush piles placed in strategic locations will help your rabbit population more than all the predator control measures you could ever hope to use.
A Final Note
Rabbits will survive wherever they are found, but how well they prosper depends largely on the efforts of private landowners. As you strive to improve your land for wildlife, remember diligence is the key to conservation success.
Remember, too, that conservation is essentially a work of the hands — hands that build brush piles, hands that plant trees, hands that write letters of concern or appreciation to public officials, hands that reach out to teach new conservationists. Work of the hands will build a better outdoors for all Americans, now and in the future.