Baby cottontails are probably the most rescued mammal in the United States. There are several reasons for this: first, rabbits generally have large litters and can reproduce every 30 days, so there are a lot of them. Second, rabbits can adapt and live in almost any available habitat, making them found everywhere in the US. They also tend to locate their nests in open areas that are susceptible to predators including dogs, cats, children and lawn mowers.
Unlike some other rabbit species that dig and live in burrows, cottontails make their nest by carving out a bowl-shaped depression in the ground in high grass or brush. The depression is about seven inches in diameter and up to five inches deep. It is lined with dried leaves and grass and belly hair from mom.
The kits are born hairless, eyes closed, and totally helpless. Their ears are not fully developed at birth and are pulled back against the side of their head. The kits develop very quickly. At ten days, their eyes and ears open. They begin the weaning process as soon as their eyes open, and they start chewing on the nesting material.
It is important to note that in order to keep from attracting predators, mother rabbits do not stay with their nest like most mammals. She returns to the nest and nurses the babies twice a day, usually at dawn and dusk. When feeding, the mother removes the nest cover material and lies down on the litter. The babies don’t suckle but rather open their mouths and throats, so that the milk runs directly into their stomach. This entire process usually takes less than a minute. The remainder of the time, she remains hidden in the brush, always keeping a watchful eye on her young but leaving the babies unattended in the nest.
This unique behavior is the reason so many bunny nests are discovered and so many bunnies are rescued. Most people that find the nest with no mother present assume that the animals are abandoned and pick them up. If fact, most of these “abandoned” bunnies are not abandoned at all, but simply waiting for mom to return.
The best way to determine the need for rescue is to watch the nest. If a pet has removed one or more bunnies from the nest and you know where the nest is, return the animals to the nest under the nesting material. Back away and watch the nest from a distance. If baby rabbits are in distress, they will do what we in the business call: “popcorn”. When a nestling kit is uncomfortable, it will begin to hop and cry. They can make a significant sound and jump surprisingly high. When several bunnies get uncomfortable, they look like popping popcorn out of the nest. If you witness this phenomenon, the babies need to be rescued. If, on the other hand, the babies remain sleeping and still, they are, at least for the time being, probably OK. Leave them alone and recheck again in 12 hours. Most likely after 12 hours the nest will have been moved by mom and the babies will be much better off not being rescued.
Baby cottontails are very difficult to raise in captivity. This is because of the limited colostrums delivered to them at birth. They have a very fragile immune system.
If you do rescue “popcorning” rabbits they should be fed unless a rehab facility is close by. Use goat milk and an eyedropper or syringe. Remember that bunnies do not suckle, so the milk needs to be dropped into the mouth.
Cottontail rabbits cannot be domesticated and do not make good pets. Attempts to keep a wild rabbit in captivity will almost certainly lead to the animal’s death.
– Bob Anderson