Mr. Cottontail is a nuisance and menace for gardeners

Some neighbourhoods are being overrun by bunnies this spring and summer. Getting to know more about them may help you cope a little better.

Rabbit deities abound in mythology, sometimes as tricksters and often as a symbol of fertility. The rabbit is the fourth sign in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac and people born in the year of the rabbit are said to be quiet, reserved and retrospective.

In Celtic mythology, rabbits were held to be inhabited by underground spirits. They were sacred for their reproductive habits and as symbols of health and prosperity. This is probably where the idea of the lucky rabbit’s foot came from, although, as the local wag will quickly point out, the sacrifice wasn’t so lucky for the rabbit!

With gardeners, the rabbit has not been so revered. In fact, Mr. Cottontail is a nuisance at best and a menace of demonic proportions at worst. And when Mrs. Cottontail moves in, well, their sexual proclivities are nothing short of scandalous.

This reputation is well deserved. Mr. Cottontail can’t wait to procreate and is capable of impregnating the long-suffering female on the same day she gives birth. He also starts thinking about love as early as February. I guess there’s not much to do in those underground burrows after a long cold winter with only the daily foray to the outdoors looking for food.

Nor is mommy rabbit the most devoted or attentive of mothers. True, she will build a nice warm nest of grasses, lined with her own soft fur, where she will give birth after 28 to 32 days of pregnancy. But after that, she spends only about five minutes a day, usually after dusk or very early in the morning, feeding her young litter of two to seven babies. In fairness, her milk is very rich and that is all it takes to fill those tiny tummies and she stays away partly to protect the family. Rabbits sweat through the pads of their feet, leaving a conveniently tell-tale trail for predators to follow. The babies, however, have no scent to attract trouble.

The most common rabbit in Canadian gardens is the cottontail. The babies, called kits, are born hairless and with their eyes closed. These open after 10 days to two weeks, but the kits are not weaned until about eight weeks (some species may be earlier), even though they begin to venture outside the nest at about four weeks.

During her lifetime, Mrs. Cottontail can have as many as 270 babies, delivered in three to four (and as many as seven) litters a year. If all goes well and predators are not numerous, a female cottontail can live to about 10 to 12 years, although she stops procreating after about six years.

Rabbits have well-developed senses for staying alive and safe from predators, which is what most of their day is about in the wild, as well as eating. Their hearing is especially keen. Those long, antennae-like ears can turn to capture the slightest sound, especially higher pitched sounds.

This makes up for their less than perfect eyesight. Although rabbits have a wide field of vision and can see behind them, they lack depth perception and have a blind spot directly in front of them. This is why you can walk head on to a rabbit only to have him brazenly ignore you. The fact is, the closer you get, the less Mr. Rabbit can see you because his close up vision is limited.

Their sense of smell is amazing, with 100 million scent cells to aid them, and they also have about 17,000 to 18,000 taste buds (as compared to our 9,000) with which to detect sweet, sour, bitter and salt. They love sweet things as pet rabbit owners will attest.

In the wild, rabbits can detect toxic plants so they know to stay away from them.

They have nerve endings all over their bodies making them very sensitive to touch. Their whiskers are the final weapon in their arsenal of self-protection detection tools and also aid them in negotiating underground in the dark.

One of their less endearing culinary habits is that of eating their own night droppings as a defence strategy.

In summer their favourite foods are clover, plantain, vetch, aster and various grasses. They do display an appetite for tender annuals in springtime and they seem to adore the first tulips as much as we do, but as the season wears on, they return to the lawn where they happily munch on clover. They have also shown a distinct preference for painted daisies. Maybe because this plant contains pyrethrins, often used to kill insect pests. It might be a good natural anti-flea agent.

In winter, cottontails generally subsist on the bark of willow, alder, aspen and hazelnut. They adore cistena cherry and young spireas, which they pare down to ground level every winter.

So how do you keep these guys out of the garden? The answer is, you don’t, unless you are very determined and vigilant.

All the remedies — hot concoctions, human hair, bone and blood meal, garlic or lavender sprays — are only effective for a short time after they are applied and certainly not past a good rainfall.

If you want to protect your prize shrubs or favourite tulips, the only sure-fire cure is a wire mesh fence, but some rabbits have been known to chew through those. They don’t care if such habits are bad for their teeth because their incisors continue to grow throughout their lifespan. Make the fence high, as rabbits can jump up to three feet or more. And they can run about 30 klicks an hour, so chasing doesn’t work.

There are certain plants they are not particularly fond of, but, in desperate times, rabbits will eat even those as long as they aren’t toxic to them.

You could try scaring them to death, but I’m not sure just how you would do that. Some people set up elaborate water alarms that go off when the rabbit approaches. Others install underground systems to send electrical shocks to their feet. Rabbits are creatures of habit and will return again and again to the same place for the same experience, even if it’s not so pleasant, so I don’t think these shock treatments really work.

Plant daffodils and foxgloves in the flower beds you want them stay out of in springtime and allow clover to fill the lawn (it’s pretty and really green). They generally leave the garden alone once the clover comes up.