Robert Burns’ famous poem might just as well apply to the wild rabbit–our local cottontail. Lagomorph, not rodent (look it up, or read on). Full text, in more modern language, follows later.
They do say no matter our own troubles, someone else has more. I stumbled over three of them this morning. Yes, they were onl
y bunnies, but all were dead, scattered across the kitchen floor like so many dominos. Newly born, cords still wet. Joey the Hun of Facebook fame, is a cat familiar to many as marauder of rabbit nests. I know how he brings in the babies, and they’re not dead and never damaged like the ones on my floor today. Joey was bottlefed–with human milk no less–so wasn’t taught to hunt by a “real” mother. He’s somehow a stalker par excellence (they’re not supposed to be when raised by people), but he’s never perfected the killing blow. He brings his catches indoors, alive unless they’re bitty mice, with a few puncture wounds that can sometimes be mended. So far I’ve managed to raise and release three of these. But today’s babies were mangled. A crushed head, a rear leg torn nearly off, skin surgically sliced. None had the punctures associated with animal attacks. And cold as ice. They’d been dead awhile, but not eaten. Those Joey brings in are warm and screaming and can be counted on to wake me. I’m supposing he found these others when their nest was destroyed. Attracted by their flailing, he brought them inside, going back for more when each disappointed him by expiring. Cats and others going about their animal business don’t upset me (too much). Animal behavior can be brutal, but it is
the natural course of things, and when observed respectfully, quite instructive. While I won’t sit around and watch Joey decimate a nest I know he’s found, it’s interesting to stalk him
and see him find one, watching just the once: seeing him lay over it, wrap himself around it until the babies sense his heat and start moving, thinking it must be mum come to feed them. At that point I grab the damned cat and ground him for a month.
These healthy babies were brought in by Joey with hardly a scratch. They required only a bit of antibiotic for having been in a cat’s mouth. The difficulty is in their peculiar digestive requirements.
But this tragedy, I’m sure, was born of human ego–a homeowner’s association gone berserk trying to “eradicate” Scotch broom. As though one could. And this does
upset me. It led to a resident with a John Deere and too much time on his hands mowing down what passes for hedgerow all along the greenbelts. Fine. Keep the place presentable, but know that cottontails choose exactly these areas for their nests from June to August. And they’re not the deep, protective burrows famous in England and other places, but shallow scrapings lined with a bit of fluff and covered with a flap of moss. Nearly impossible to see. Impossible unless you’re a cat with endless patience and a knowledge of cottontail habitat. Certainly impossible from the height of a riding mower. Garden tools are notorious for ripping nests open and mutilating mothers, babies, or both.
Small, sleek cowering, timorous beast,
Oh, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With hurrying scamper!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff…
“To a Mouse,” Robert Burns, 1759-1796
Even in the 1700s, Burns thought to grieve the harm farming activities could do these “timorous beasties,” even though mice in particular were known to contaminate food stores, overrun granaries, and nest in the thatched roofs overhead. Rabbits, likewise, have been viewed as pests simply for reproducing as quickly as the moon goes from new to full. That they patiently serve as nature’s pantry for the entire world is largely ignored. They are, however, a species of creature unlike almost any other. Not rodents, they are lagomorphs. Which means they’ve a double set of incisors and a gut that digests hard fiber by means of fermentation. Like hooved animals–like deer. In fact, wild rabbits most resemble deer in their sleek facies and graceful forelegs, not to mention their habits. They are crepuscular rather than nocturnal animals; most active at dawn and dusk, when they emerge to feed in the half-light their peculiar eyes use best for seeing. They don’t abandon their babies, but protect them by leaving the nest between feedings, just as do deer: the doe who parks her fawn behind a log, or deadfall, or bush, and instructs it to be utterly still and silent until she returns. A mother rabbit is also a doe–as her mate is a buck–and leaves her nest to wait and feed nearby so her own mature scent won’t betray her offspring.
Far from ready for release, these bunnies are attached to their human foster mother, but will become wild the moment they don’t need her any longer.
Private creatures, they are yet social, especially within the family. Thought to separate from their kits as soon as they leave the nest, observers are only now learning the bond is not so early severed. The worst thing I may have ever seen was a mother racing to and fro after a crow that had clearly stolen one of her half-grown babies.Too big for the bird to actually lift away, it flapped from one end of our yard to the other, with the doe running after it, frantically trying to rescue her child. When the crow tired and dropped it, the baby was recovered. It had been thoroughly mutilated–the job of some hours. In all that time the mother hadn’t forgotten about, or given up on, her kit. These are only little lives, these bunnies–whom the lawnmower man points out live here in their thousands–but these little lives are the ones they’re given–certainly as important to them as ours are to us. They are the very image of the meek who will inherit, and we have as much to learn from them as from our cat and dog friends. Sister Rabbit, Brother Dog, as Saint Francis would have said. And as some say in other parts of the world: “Namaste–I bow to the spark of God in you.” https://www.facebook.com/kay.jackson.904/videos/1494604578959/?l=7832060970311559415