Rabbits

Washington State is home to several species of rabbits and hares. The species PAWS most commonly receive calls about are Eastern Cottontails and occasionally Snowshoe Hares.

Eastern Cottontails are grayish-brown on top, interspersed with some black, and they often have a white spot on their forehead. They have a rusty patch at the nape of the neck, whitish feet and a short tail that is cottony-white on the underside. Adult cottontails weigh between 2 and 4 pounds.

Snowshoe Hares are dark brown with a tail that is dusky to white on the underside. In Western Washington they remain this color year-round, but in snowy parts they may be all white or white mottled with brown. The large hind feet of the Snowshoe Hare have well-furred soles, especially in winter. Juveniles have much coarser hair than Eastern Cottontails. Adult Snowshoe Hares range in weight from just under 2 pounds to a little over 3 pounds.

Habitat and diet

Both Snowshoe Hares and Eastern Cottontails are mostly active at dusk and dawn and at night, passing the day under thick brush, branches of trees or in a burrow. Cottontails prefer mixed habitat of brush, forested strips with open areas nearby, swamp edges and weed patches in the lowlands. Snowshoe Hares prefer inhabit forests, thickets, swamps and mountainous areas.

Both species feed on grasses and other vegetation in summer and switch to plant buds and cambium (the living layer just below the bark on trees) during winter. Both will also help themselves to garden and ornamental plants.

Breeding

Both Snowshoe Hares and Eastern Cottontails are prolific breeders, the former having 2-3 litters of 1-7 young between April and August and the latter having as many as 4 litters of 4-7 young during spring and summer. Baby cottontails are born naked and helpless, and spend several weeks in a grass, leaf and fur-lined nest.

The mother visits the young only twice a day to nurse. Cottontail nests are difficult to detect, even in grassy lawns, so the young are very susceptible to injury from lawnmowers and weed-eaters.

Unlike the cottontails, baby Snowshoe Hares are born fully-furred with their eyes open. They can run within hours of birth and nurse for about a month before weaning.

Solving and preventing conflicts

Conflicts with rabbits and hares are closely tied to their nutritional needs at a given time of year. During summer they often eat fresh garden plants and flowers. During winter they nibble on small trees and shrubs. This often does not sit well with gardeners and property owners. There are several options to discourage the rabbits or to prevent them from gaining access to you plants.

Exclusion techniques

If you are trying to protect individual plants or a garden patch, a 2 to 3-foot chicken wire fence supported by metal stakes should do the trick. An additional one-foot length of chicken wire placed flat on the ground stretching outward from the fence will help prevent rabbits from digging under it. You will need to stake down this horizontal piece of fencing so that animals do not attempt to wriggle underneath.

If you have an existing fence, you can rabbit-proof it by attaching chicken wire to the bottom 2 feet and including the one-foot skirt as described above. You will also need to ensure that any gates fit tightly enough that rabbits will not be able to squeeze or burrow underneath.

Make plants undesirable

You can buy a variety of scent and taste repellents at lawn and garden shops that claim to be effective. Predator urine, blood meal, taste deterrents made with putrescent whole-egg solids and a variety of other concoctions can be bought or made at home. Most of these products have not been studied to determine their effectiveness, but many gardeners swear by them.

Lastly, you can plant rabbit-resistant shrubs and flowers. There are not many plants rabbits won't eat if the need arises, but there are many not on their list of favorites.

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