By Ali Holton
Spring has sprung and that means new life for many species here in the Sunshine State. Animals are on the move as they mate, birth and rear their young, making it much more common to encounter wildlife this time of year.
A regular springtime occurrence (and just in time for Easter) are the adorable, fluffy, brown rabbits found grazing, hopping or running in fields, yards and marshlands. Florida is home to two species of wild rabbit: the Eastern cottontail and the marsh rabbit. Both species have an herbivorous diet that consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, grasses and other vegetation.
Marsh rabbits are typically found throughout the state, mostly around fresh and brackish water in swampy wetland areas. These small, brown, coarsely furred rabbits are unique because they are strong swimmers and, rather than hop, they often walk.
Marsh rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk and, like all rabbits, are an important prey species to many predators, such as owls, alligators, coyotes, foxes and bobcats. Eastern cottontails are aptly named for their fluffy, white tail which resembles a cotton ball. They are widespread and the most common species of wild rabbit in North America. Eastern cottontails breed year-round but are most active in spring and summer. Females, also called does, can reproduce several times a year and average litters of four to seven young. Their gestation lasts around 30 days.
Cottontail nests are made in shallowly dug holes which the doe has covered in grass and vegetation. Mothers often leave their young for extended periods of time to feed and also to keep her nest undisturbed from predators. Many times, these nests end up in residential yards. It is important to keep an eye out during mowing and yard maintenance. These nests will always be covered with fur, leaves and grass.
If you find babies without their mom, know that their mom is most likely nearby. Wild bunnies that are needlessly removed from their nests have a very high mortality rate in rehab. It is recommended that upon finding a nest, you should assess the situation and only intervene if there is an emergent, unavoidable reason to do so. Rather, if you find a nest, simply re-cover it and allow the babies to be tended to by their mother. Remember that wildlife are best left wild, and that spring is a time for appreciation for all of our amazing species.
Ali Holton is currently director of FishHawk TNR Inc. She has a master’s in biodiversity, wildlife and ecosystems and 20 years of experience specializing in animal behavior and conservation. To reach her, email FishHawkTNR4@gmail.com.