WOONSOCKET — With their tawny fur and puffy white tails, a family of rabbits seems to have found its comfort zone in Beth Kaplan’s yard in nearby Cumberland.
“One was on my front path just layin’ on his side chillin’ the other day,” she says.
But you don’t have to live in the suburbs to see rabbits these days. Residents all over Rhode Island, including Kaplan, say they seem to be seeing more of them than usual. Michelle Mariani, a city resident, says she saw a trio of rabbits happily munching on a patch of grass when they came out of a restaurant in the middle of downtown Providence a few days ago.
Is Rhode Island in the midst of a bunny boom?
The short answer is nobody is really sure, says Dylan Ferreira, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Management. The species of rabbit people are seeing in their backyards and meadows is the Eastern cottontail, and there is presently no tracking system in place that might allow scientists to make a data-supported guess about the size of their population.
Ferreira says it’s possible people are seeing a lot of rabbits purely because they’re at the peak stage of their breeding cycle, and when they breed, they can really crank out some babies, or kits, as they’re called. A female rabbit typically gives birth to two to four litters of up to five newborns between spring and summer, and before the season is over some of the offspring will already be old enough to begin reproducing themselves.
The exponential nature of the rabbit’s reproductive capacity explains the origin of the expression “breed like rabbits.”
“Pretty much every year in spring and summer when rabbits are giving birth people see more rabbits in their yards,” said Ferreira. “This is the time of year people will see the most rabbits. This is when they’re being born.”
Of course, it’s 2021, so naturally there’s even a theory circulating among wildlife professionals that ties the bumper crop of bunny sightings to the pandemic. It goes something like this: Since people are spending more time at home and in their backyards due to habits ingrained in them as a result of COVID-19, they’re also seeing more of the same things that were always there anyway – including rabbits.
Ferreira has experienced this phenomenon first-hand as a researcher. He didn’t start paying attention to rabbits much until it became part of his job at DEM, which also involves monitoring deer.
“It’s just one of those things you don’t notice until you notice and then once you notice it’s all you notice,” he says. “Now I see rabbits all over the place. They do well in people’s backyards. They’re safer from predators. They know a coyote is less likely to come through somebody’s yard and attack a bunny on the front steps and in the bushes.”
Still, in the absence of hard data, Ferreira doesn’t rule out the possibility that there are actually more Eastern cottontails around this year than there have been for some time. Research shows that rabbit populations are cyclical, and that they are keyed to the prevalence of other creatures that eat them, including fox, coyotes, owls, hawks and bobcats. As predators dwindle for various reasons, the rabbit population escalates, setting the stage for a resurgence of the predators.
One incontrovertible fact about the Eastern cottontails that people are seeing is that they are a non-native species that was brought into the state in the 1800s after their indigenous cousins, the New England cottontail, was decimated by hunting and loss of habitat, says Ferreira.
While Eastern cottontails are now ubiquitous throughout the state, there are no New England cottontails in Rhode Island except for a very few that DEM has “translocated” to a handful of select spots where the agency is attempting to reestablish sustainable, self-reproducing colonies.
It’s all part of “New England Cottontail,” a regional collaborative that includes all the New England states, except for Vermont, plus New York. The goal of the program, says Ferreira, is to promote species biodiversity and to maintain a healthy balance between populations of predators and prey species.
“Rabbits provide an ecosystem benefit because they are a huge prey species,” explains Ferreira. “Negative population has impacts for the prey species. They could start looking for other food, and that’s not something we want because we could have conflicts with other species. If there’s not enough of a food source around that’s when they start looking for food. When they start turning up in other people’s backyards that’s when we start to have problems.”
Ferreira says the other major goal of the collaborative is to prevent the New England cottontail from becoming extinct. New England is the only place “in the whole world” where the creature exists, and wildlife biologists want to make sure the species carries on.
Ferreira said DEM has achieved promising results attempting to restore the New England cottontail in Rhode Island. There are about a hundred of them that appear to be reproducing on their own and thriving on Patience Island, where DEM began relocating animals about a decade ago.
There are also newer efforts to establish breeding colonies in the Great Swamp Management Area of West Kingston and the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown, both of which are believed to be home to 5-20 New England cottontails. In the former, the operation seems to be on the path to success.
“Over the past couple of winters, we have documented reproduction,” said Ferreira. “We have high hopes for that.”
To look at them in the wild, the Eastern cottontail is virtually indistinguishable from the New England counterpart, says Ferreira. Even he can’t tell them apart, and he’s an expert. The only way to do so is by examining the bones of the skull, which differ slightly. So researchers at DEM perform species identification for their relocation programs through DNA analysis.
But the two species flourish in markedly different environments. Ferreira calls the Eastern cottontail “a habitat generalist” that eats everything from grass and clover to lowbush blueberries and garden lettuce.
By comparison the New England cottontail is a notoriously picky eater, surviving on the young saplings of new growth forest. Creating those habitats is a critical part of restoring the species for the New England Cottontail collaborative.
The Eastern cottontail’s willingness to eat just about anything green is the key to understanding its success in suburbia, says Ferreira.
“Potentially the Eastern cottontail has outcompeted the New England cottontail,” he says. “They’re such a generalist they don’t need forest habitat. They can survive in the suburbs. They’re basically everywhere.”
The Eastern cottontail’s all-consuming habits may not always make it a welcome guest in the garden, where many green-thumbers rank them right up there with woodchucks on the pest scale.
But Cumberland’s Kaplan doesn’t care. She has raised beds where the rabbits can’t reach her veggies. And she planted extra for them anyway.
“They are cute as hell!” she says. “I love seeing them.”