Where we live, in northwestern Washington, we have grown accustomed to seeing many of the same types of animals much of the time. Some remain here year-round, some come and go with the seasons, and some appear, then disappear, from time to time for whatever reason. Of the latter, we often never know where they come from nor where they go, but simply enjoy them while they're here. This has been true for the Chinese Pheasant, California Quail, Barred Owl, Opossum, Chipmunk. Bobcat, and Black Bear - all of which appeared for a short time, then disappeared. We know they are still in this area, so maybe they'll grace us with their presence again one day.
So it is with the Western Brush Rabbit, which suddenly appeared in our yard around 3 years ago. These small "cottontails" are found along the western coastal regions and thrive in thickets of wild roses, blackberries, willows, elderberries and other low growing vines, shrubs and vegetation. These locations are perfect for building runways and tunnels under and through the vegetation. Since our property contains many large trees and is surrounded by woods and brush, it seems a perfect habitat for them.
Smaller than other cottontails (11-14" long), this bunny has a reddish brown mottled body, white belly, and grey under its tail instead of white. Being small and living on the forest fringe allows it to quietly blend in with its surroundings; large eyes and upright, sensitive ears enable it to see and hear dangers that might lurk about. Often, they will freeze and remain perfectly still so as not to be noticed.
The soles of their feet are well furred which helps dampen the shock of rapid hopping; long toes are webbed which keeps them from spreading apart as they jump. They are never far from protective vegetation and will bolt for cover if they hear a warning cry from a bird, chipmunk or squirrel. When being pursued, they run in a zigzag pattern and can run up to 20 to 25 miles per hour. Predators include coyotes, hawks, raccoons, crows, snakes along with domestic cats and dogs. And, of course, human beings...
Mainly active in the early mornings and evenings, they do venture out during the day, quietly "grazing" in the woods and open fields. They feed regularly on grasses, but they also enjoy sedges, clovers, plantains, berries, forbs, buds, bark and leaves of woody plants such as salal and Douglas fir. They enjoy new raspberry canes and parts of the wild roses. They can damage garden crops and flowers, but we keep our raised vegetable garden fenced and flower damage has been minimal. Usually, we see them in the grassy areas nibbling the clover, but in the late winter I notice all of my grape hyacinth leaves being neatly trimmed off. These little guys do not hibernate, and so remain active all year long. In the winter, they feed on more woody materials and we only see occasional signs of their visits to our yard.
Recently, my husband discovered a tiny baby bunny as he was mowing our back lawn. Startled, the baby hopped across the grass, onto a sidewalk, then huddled next to a concrete curb. Hearing a call, I came running to see. What a tiny thing this was - about three inches long! Because of its size, we carefully lifted it into a bucket with a towel for bedding while I called a local wildlife center for advice. They asked the usual questions: "Does it appear injured? Does it have fur? Are its eyes open and clear? Does it have its teeth yet? " TEETH yet? I didn't know.... Gently I picked it up (It just fit in the palm of my hand) and carefully poked at its little mouth. It took me a try or two, but then I got its mouth open and YES, it did have its teeth. "OK" came the voice on the phone. "It's good to go - turn it loose close to some brush." I did as I was told, but I did wonder what the chance of survival is for one so very small.
In our area, Brush Rabbits breed from February through August; females may have two to three litters a year. The mother digs a shallow cavity or burrow, lines it with grasses and fur, and then makes a plug from dried vegetation. She covers the nest with this plug or blanket of grass before leaving the nest. The babies are born blind, hairless, and helpless, with 2 to 4 bunnies in a litter. A mother rabbit feeds her kits with her rich milk once in the morning and once in the evening. She is very territorial around her young and spends the rest of the day away from the nest so she doesn't attract predators to the nesting site. The kits' eyes open on around the 10th day; they mature in 4 to 5 months and breed the following spring. Although rabbits have a high reproductive rate, three out of four do not survive the next breeding season.
The day after we found the baby bunny, the sharp-shinned hawk made a visit to the yard, as it does on occasion.
I did not see it catch anything, but it was definitely looking.
An adult rabbit grazes each afternoon, but there's been no more sign of the little one. We may never know its fate, but it is well equipped for its way of life and we hope for the best. If I could speak its language, or it could understand mine, I would remind it that those of its kind were named as they were for a reason. "Stay near the brush, little one - and good luck."
(I'm happy to report that since I wrote this the mama bunny has been sighted with the wee one along side. They have both cavorted, nibbled, frozen, and raced about. They remain near the edge of the brush...)