Nature Notes: Fewer spring thunderstorms mean abundant cottontails

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By Marion & Rich Patterson, The Gazette

There is a reason why cottontail rabbits are abundant in the Corridor this summer. There weren’t many spring or early summer thunderstorms.

A female cottontail is a reproductive factory, giving birth to three litters and up to two dozen babies a year. Before birthing she digs a small hole, often at the edge of a lawn or woodland, and lines it with soft fur. Two to eight helpless babies are born in the hole. They are favored prey of raptors, snakes, raccoons, skunks and even domestic cats and dogs, so the mother stays away from her nest to avoid attracting attention to her young. She only visits a few times a day to nurse them.

A rabbit sitting quietly in the evening or morning is likely perched over her nest nursing babies. If you see this, stay away. If you happen upon a nest, leave it alone. Get children and animals away and the mother rabbit will return in time to nurse the young.

Newborn bunnies grow rapidly and once weaned receive little parental care. As soon as they are out of the nest hopping around yards, farms and roadsides, they are on their own. Their diet switches from milk to clover, dandelions and some grass, but rabbits love peas, beans and lettuce and often earn the ire of gardeners. By the time small rabbits are raiding gardens, mom has re-mated and is preparing for her next litter.

Rain is the great killer of baby rabbits. Intense thunderstorms flood their nests and drown helpless bunnies. In years when thunderstorms occur repeatedly, most drown. This year few heavy storms visited the Corridor so thousands of baby cottontails survived. They are easy prey for predators and only about 15 percent of babies live to see their first birthday. Enough always survive to replenish the species.

• Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids.

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