Rescue and Release of 5 Baby Cottontail Rabbits
Rabbits around my Home
I see a regular parade of cottontail rabbits around my property. 3 things attract them, the fallen seed from the bird feeder, the clover I have planted in my grass and the dandelions that volunteer, and MY GARDEN!
The rabbits above are suspiciously close to my raised beds. A few days later the peas that had just started coming up, were trimmed neatly to the ground. (I don't mind, I like bunnies more than I like peas.)
They come out in the evening and if I set the critter cam camera I often get pictures of rabbits checking out under the bird feeders at night or in early morning.
5 New Bunnies
In spring, my neighbour approached me with a tub full of tiny rabbits. The mother had made a nest in her waterfall and the dog and cat had found them. There was no way of keeping the tiny rabbits in the nest. The animals had already found them and wanted nothing more than to play or eat them.
There was no way of easily moving the nest because the property was large and fenced. We could not easily figure out which way the mother was coming in. Had we known this we might have been able to reposition the nest but, as it was, the nearby woods are full of raccoons, opossums, foxes and coyotes, not to mention the hawks and owls. Sadly for rabbits, baby bunnies make a great meal. It was an unfortunate nest site choice.
I reluctantly agreed to take them and care for them, knowing the outcome is not usually bright for stressed out nursing baby rabbits
I looked for a wildlife rehabilitater but could not find one. The rate of success for un-experienced rescuers is very small and most bunnies die.
IF YOU FIND A RABBIT NEST THAT SEEMS ABANDONED BY THE MOTHER, DON'T TAKE THE BUNNIES. THE MOTHER ONLY COMES TWICE A DAY. UNLESS YOU KNOW THE MOTHER IS DEAD OR THE RABBITS ARE SURE TO DIE IF NOT RESCUED, DO NOTHING. THEY ARE MOST LIKELY FINE.
Taking care of the rabbits
I had experience raising newborn kittens and rabbits so I had some knowledge. Baby rabbits are very delicate and will often die if stressed. It is never a good idea to remove them from a nest.
Wild mother rabbits will not stay with their babies but rather will go in, make sure they are ok, feed them as much as they can take, clean them and leave them. Baby bunnies only nurse twice a day, dawn and dusk. To raise them successfully you need to be able to get enough milk into the babies without stressing them out too much.
These babies had just opened their eyes but were not feeding themselves. They would have to be hand fed. There are baby animal bottles but I've always preferred using an eye dropper. Mother rabbit milk is very rich. 14% fat and 15% protein. Link to science paper on composition of wild cottontail milk. PDF file. Cow milk has 4-5 % fat and 3% protein. Interestingly, human milk is one of the least concentrated milk with 3-5% fat but only .8% protein.
I used KMR kitten milk replacer. I bought it from a pet food store but Amazon has it: (4-Pack) KMR Liquid Milk Replacer for Kittens and Cats, 8-Ounce Cans It has 7.5% protein and 4.5% fat. Some people suggest adding some cream to the mix to increase the fat content but I did not do this. It comes in liquid or powder. I think powder would be more economical but that's what the store carried.
Feeding the Rabbits
Photo shows the commercial rabbit food I tried to feed the rabbits when they had grown a bit. They did not eat any of it. The food looked promising. Many of the articles I read suggested feeding the bunnies with hay pellets and rabbit food. Maybe if there is a lot of good fresh greens they cottontails prefer it and don't want dried food.
Feeding the rabbits was quite difficult at first. They were stressed and afraid. I carefully lifted one out of the bucket, wrapped it in a facecloth and gently tried to open its mouth with the end of the eye dropper while dripping in some milk. I had warmed the formula to a warm but comfortable temperature.
The first 2 feedings were quite bad. Not a single bunny seemed to swallow anything and they were very frightened. 3 screamed when I picked them up. You have to be very careful not to put too much milk in their nose or too much too fast so they choke or sneeze. It's easy for them to aspirate the milk into their lungs ... and die. Baby bunnies die easily.
After 2 days I had 2 rabbits that were willing to take milk from a dropper, 2 bunnies that resisted as much as they could but eventually swallowed a little, and one who was too frightened to drink anything and was beginning to be quite weak. This last bunny eventually after 5 days managed to drink a small amount but his chances were slim.
Baby cottontails open their eyes at about 10 days and that is probably the age I got them. I had them for about 10 days before they started eating the greens I put in the bucket. It was a large Rubbermaid container and just as they started eating, they also started jumping and I had to cover the top with a grate so they would not escape.
A few days after starting to eat the rabbits were eating well. I stopped feeding them milk by dropper and put them in a larger cage. for a few feedings I put milk out in a bowl but they only drank that once.
All through the process I tried to avoid handling the babies. I did not want them to tame at all. Besides handling the rabbits was very stressful although they did not scream any more.
The one bunny I was worried about leaned to eat solids and did very well after that. I guess he got enough milk to survive until he was ready for solid rabbit food.
What did the rabbits eat?
I was on firmer ground when it came to feeding the rabbits. I knew that rabbits love dandelion leaves and will also choose clover if given the chance. Since I had lots of both in the yard it was easy to pick fresh greens for them. To the dandelions and clover I added some of the sprouted grass from under the bird feeders. They also liked greens from the garden, lettuce, arugula, and mustard greens. I added some small maple twigs, plantain leaves and kale. I tried fresh asparagus and they did not like it. I also added some finely cut carrots which they loved.
In a small bowl I presented raw sunflower seeds and large flake oats and this went over well.
The only thing they did not touch was the commercial rabbit food! It looked nutritious with hay pellets, dried veggies and grain plus pumpkin seeds, but I had no takers.
I also kept a small bowl of water but I never saw the level go down so I think they were getting enough moisture from the fresh greens.
In order to keep the rabbits calm, I kept the cage covered with just a small slit to allow some light. Cats liked to check out the cage when I un-coved it.
I had added a little nest box to the cage along with a kitty little box which was used some. I also fed them in a corner triangular plastic bin sold for ferret cages to use as a litter box. It's easy to clean and does not take up a lot of space.
Releasing the Cottontail Rabbits
After I'd been looking after the baby cottontails for 5 weeks they were growing quickly, were very active and had started trying to dig and were making a lot of noise at night. I had a photo of a wild rabbit in my yard which was pretty much the same size as my bunnies. The cage had become too small for 5 energetic rabbits. I decided to release them. They were about 7 weeks old.
Nearby there is a conservation area with a prairie, some trees, a small stream and a wooded area, Shagbark Nature park is not a busy park so they would be away from walking dogs and traffic.
I took them to the row of trees on the edge of the field. There is good grass including lots of dandelions. The photo is from a visit I made last September.
The red wing blackbird kept a close watch on us. His nest must be near.
Fist step was to catch them! They are fast and very wiggly. Eventually I managed to put them all in a kitty carrier box and drive them to the park. They were a bit worried but not panic stricken.
It's interesting that they don't bite. When handling rabbits it's the legs you have to watch. A grown rabbit can open your arm with their strong back legs. My little guys can't do much except hop very high and run very fast. As adults they will be very good runners. I took a photo of this guy in my yard. When they are frightened they stop moving and flatten themselves. Their colour blends into the background and they are very hard to see.
It's a big world for tiny rabbits but they were all fairly calm when they walked away from the case. All these rabbits were walking in the grass for the first time. Luckily I had been feeding them from the yard grass and they recognized the dandelions right away. One even took a few bites before hopping off.
I hope they get to enjoy themselves and lead long bunny lives. My part is done.