Speaking of Nature: The biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen

By BILL DANIELSON

Published: 03-12-2023 11:02 PM

So far, this winter has been remarkably average. Some areas might be a little low on snowfall levels, but the temperature has been about average for most days. I’d say it has been a cloudy, gray winter, but nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to general weather conditions. Certainly nothing like what our countrymen on the West Coast are dealing with (thank goodness).

This averageness has shown itself in my bird lists as well. In January I observed 26 different species of birds at my feeders, or around my yard. The average for January is 25 species. In February I increased that number to 29 species, but the average for February also increased to 27 species. There just hasn’t been anything particularly sexy on my lists. No irruptive winter finches, or northern shrikes, or northern harriers; nothing at all out of the ordinary. The one bright exception to this otherwise ordinary roster is the little red-breasted nuthatch that has been hanging around my feeders.

So, when faced with what can some days feel like a monotonous parade of “regulars,” one looks for anything that might capture the imagination. Regular readers will note that I have turned some of my attention to squirrels of late. I’ve looked at two different species in general terms and then last week I looked at the combative nature of male red squirrels by featuring a male that was missing an entire ear. The only issue with mammals is that they tend not to present themselves near humans. Out of necessity they must remain cautious.

In my yard, however, there seem to be some exceptions. I have no dogs or cats and I live in a rural neighborhood where there are very few dogs and even fewer cats around. I most certainly have coyotes and bobcats in the area, but these species are quite different from our domestic pets. The wild predators are constantly on the lookout for food, whereas our pets are generally well fed and are just out looking for something interesting. Bored, well-fed pets can actually cause a lot of trouble.

Since I don’t have to contend with the issue of dogs and cats in my yard, there is ample opportunity for wild mammals to come to the house without fear of any danger of harassment. Red and gray squirrels visit during the day, flying squirrels are regular visitors at night and the occasional visits from raccoons, skunks and opossums are not out of the question. But in my yard, the real superstars are the rabbits.

I can’t necessarily explain what it is about my general neighborhood, but there are eastern cottontails all over the place. Their numbers gradually decline as the winter progresses, but in the spring there is a literal explosion of numbers as the landscape is filled with baby rabbits. All of these rabbits represent a great deal of food for predators, so that may explain the healthy numbers of coyotes, foxes, bobcats and weasels in the area.

Despite the average nature of our current winter, we cannot forget that winter is still a remarkably challenging season for our wild neighbors. Rabbits have no homes to retreat to, no wood stoves to light, no water heaters to provide a warm bath and no refrigerators full of food. In fact, when it comes to food there is only less and less available every day. At winter’s end, the conditions may become desperate.

However, the rabbits in my yard have learned that there is often a pile of delicious food available on my deck. My house is built on a hillside and my deck is at ground level on the northern end, where the driveway is. At the south end of the deck the structure is about 12 feet above the ground and there is a set of stairs that can take you down to the lawn. So I am always amazed and delighted when I find fresh rabbit tracks on my deck. At this point I think the evidence suggests that I have nightly visits from a different group of “regulars.”

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Last weekend I made a delightful discovery after my early-morning bird observation period had begun. I looked out onto the deck and saw what I think might be the most enormous rabbit that I’ve ever seen. This guy was the brontosaurus of rabbits and not only was he large, but he was also fat. I imagine that he has been eating piles of sunflower seeds all winter and he has managed to keep himself in fine condition as a result. I mean, this rabbit was so fat that he even had rolls of extra flesh around his neck. And, upon closer inspection of today’s photograph, he also bears the scars of combat.

I have added a small red arrow to the photo to draw your attention to the rabbit’s left ear, which has a large tear in it. More evidence of the violent combat that male mammals engage in as they try to establish themselves as the dominant males in the neighborhood. This ensures access to food and females, which will ensure their genetic legacy. As long as this particular male cottontail can avoid cars, coyotes and bobcats, then I think it is safe to say that his offspring are going to thrive.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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