They are adorable. Also, I want to throttle them.
Is it just me, or are rabbits suddenly everywhere?
Before last year, nary a one had ventured into my yard, as far as I could tell. When I spotted one hopping out from beneath the rhododendron last summer, I was utterly delighted. So cute! So fluffy! So true to the gold-wrapped chocolate kind I scarf down at Easter!
But now they are legion. And they are bold.
At first we convinced ourselves there was only one. We named him Gerald and welcomed him as a safely distant member of the family. But early one morning Gerald was in three places at once, and the truth was revealed.
His mob has feasted on my kale, beheaded my Asiatic lilies, bitten to nubs the stems of all but one of my sunflowers, the lone survivor a mocking reminder of what might have been. They appear mostly alone, but sometimes in gangs, gorging themselves right out in the open. Sometimes they will freeze, trying to disappear, which is an insult to my intelligence. Sometimes they just keep stuffing their sweet little faces, staring me down as they ingest the fruits of my many labors.
Some of them really seem to have an attitude, like they’re daring me to chase them off — Bugs Bunnies to my Elmer Fudd. For animals who eat their own poop, they seem incredibly sure of themselves.
Sorry, but that’s what they do. After destroying my treasures, they go off and produce soft green droppings, which they eat again to extract more nutrients. Gross.
I learned this and many other rabbit facts from Marion Larson, the delightful head of information and education at Mass Wildlife. But she couldn’t answer my main question: Has there been some kind of rabbit population explosion this year?
She says her department has heard from many more residents reporting wildlife sightings last year and this, but she puts it down to more observation, rather than more animals: A lot of folks, at home day after day during the pandemic, were noticing the creatures outside the window for the first time. A definitive measure of wildlife is hard to come by in any case, she said, because the animals won’t sit still for a census.
“No one can tell you there are more rabbits this year than last year, because it’s impossible to count them,” she said.
Fair enough, but you don’t need a calculator to see that the little critters are, um, multiplying, and possibly plotting some kind of takeover.
Eastern cottontails — grayish- or reddish-brown, with long ears and white pom-pom tails — aren’t native to New England. They were brought up from the mid-Atlantic states by hunters in the late 1800s, for sport. Even for rabbits, they are prolific breeders: They give birth two to four times between March and early fall, with three to eight bunnies per litter. And those babies are fully independent loners within five weeks.
But the poor little furballs have so many enemies — foxes, coyotes, raccoons, hawks, cats and dogs, among others — that only 15 percent of them survive their first year. Aw, how can you stay mad at them?
Around here, a bunch of them are getting carried off by coyotes, who also seem to be more numerous and bold this year, their bone-chilling howls piercing the night. Again, Larson says it’s hard to say if there are actually more coyotes, or if we’re just more aware of them. Or maybe we just don’t intimidate them any more: They roam the streets like they own them.
This red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff is scary, exciting, humbling.
We humans think we run this place, and we mostly do. We live at the top of the food chain, but we keep preying on ourselves. We’ve wrecked the planet trying to bend it to our will. We found a way to end a deadly global pandemic, but millions of us refuse to make it happen. We act like we own everything. But, in little ways, nature defies us.
Humans have had a lousy year, but the rabbits are having a spectacular one. Good for you, team Leporidae! Go ahead and celebrate. And wander. My neighbors’ gardens look delicious.