Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chasing Rabbits

I entered the hoophouse the other day to inspect the heirloom tomatoes. Sue (a 12-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever) joined me and immediately began nosing around the edges. Though she’s getting a little too slow to chase down a groundhog, her taste for wild game is as strong as ever. She snorted and, in quick succession, lapped up five single-sized portions of tender baby bunny flesh and soft baby bunny bones—her version of chocolate truffles. One, two, three, four, five bunnies gone in as many seconds. 
Cottontails love sudangrass. Sue loves cottontails.

Hard-hearted gardener that I am, my first thought was: Maybe now my pole beans will make it to climbing size.

Carrot tops=bunny lunch.
I occasionally find soft nests of grass and fur here and there in the garden. Usually they are empty. Most often they are hidden in carrot beds (which I always plant too thickly). One day I marvel at the soft ferny carrot tops standing straight and tall; the next I notice a carefully concealed gap somewhere in the center of the bed. There is something comical, and not very bright, about a mother rabbit hiding her newborns in a bed of carrots. Despite the picture we all have of Bugs Bunny chomping on carrots, the roots are not what the rabbit is after. The tall green forest of tops is a perfect hideout—or so mama thinks. It takes a week for the babies to open their eyes, and another for them to hop out and develop a taste for carrot greens and bean seedlings. If a dog or raccoon doesn’t sniff them out in that time, I will.

But if you give birth to 20 or more young in a single year, maybe you’re not all that concerned about the well-being of every last one. Mama cottontail visits her newborns a couple of times a day for a quick nursing session, each one getting a few minutes of her time. Other than that, the defenseless balls of flesh and fur are on their own. Best not to get too attached when the odds of your babies hopping out on their own are slim … and made slimmer by ill-considered nesting choices. 

In my attempts to catch the groundhog that eats every winter squash leaf that manages to shoulder aside its floating cover, I have caught several rabbits. On one occasion, Sue tormented a trapped bunny so persistently that I (uncharacteristically) took pity on it. I carried it off, opened the Havahart, and watch the cottony tail bounce into the brush. Was this the mother of Sue’s delectable meal? Did she come back? I can imagine her rabbit mind thinking, “Oops, lost another litter … guess I’d better go urinate on a buck.”

I’ve never observed the cottontail mating behavior, which mostly happens at night. Bob (my own mate) talks of the time he watched dozens of rabbits cavorting on the Cedar Crest College lawn. It must have been a sight! Besides the mutual urination ritual, the process involves male competition, male-female “boxing,” and leaping up and down. The male fights the female in order to impress her. When she is suitably awed, she will allow copulation, which takes only seconds. A month later, four or five (or six or seven) babies are placed in their cozy fur-lined bed.
A climbing bean, thwarted again.

I invite Sue into the garden frequently. I’ll go check the beans, I tell her. You check the carrots.

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