By DANA RICHIE
At dusk, it stands perfectly still, tucked between two shrubs at the edge of a lawn. Disturbed by the slightest movement, it hops into the grassy area.
Many west bay residents have noticed an invasion: rabbits. They often appear in multiples, remaining perfectly still on sidewalks and in yards. Or maybe, you notice the remnants of their raid in chewed up plants and disturbed gardens. It’s the talk of the town: why are there so many rabbits this year?
Suzanne, a resident of Oakland Beach for 30 years, said that her yard is now “a petting zoo,” home to newborn and adult rabbits. She said she often sees 5 or 6 rabbits in her backyard at any time of day, which is way more than she ever remembered seeing growing up in Warwick.
“They’re in everybody’s yard,” she added. “They’re also across the street in the neighbor’s yard.”
Neighbors have come up with their own theories to make sense of this phenomenon. Maybe it’s because dog owners are more strictly following the leash laws? Maybe it’s because there are fewer coyotes or eagles in the area? Maybe the brush and trees are fuller so there’s more cover and food for them?
Dylan Ferreira, Principal Wildlife Biologist focusing on deer and New England Cottontail Rabbits for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said the population explosion is likely explained by a boom period in Eastern Cottontails’ cyclic population fluctuations.
“This is definitely not the first time I’ve talked about a lot of rabbits,” Ferreira said. “This definitely happens every so often. There will be a really booming year for the rabbit population and a lot of people are noticing in their yard, their driveways and when they’re driving around.”
He explained this alternating pattern. There are years when there are not a lot of rabbits due to a variety of factors including weather or breeding outcomes. This leads to a decrease in the predator population because there is less food available. Then, because of the lack of predation, the rabbit population increases. With more rabbits, there are more food sources available to predators, causing predator populations to increase. That poses a greater threat to the rabbit population, causing the number of rabbits to decrease.
“It kind of just goes back and forth through time,” he added. “There will be high years and low years.”
Ferreira added that other factors like weather and breeding conditions could contribute to this year being a high year.
“In the years that you see a lot more rabbits than usual, it’s probably a combination of the perfect breeding conditions and survival conditions and then not as many predators as prior years,” he said.
Chadwick Rittenhouse, Assistant Professor in Residence at the University of Connecticut, earned his PhD in wildlife science and has been working with wildlife conservation for 20 years, recently focusing on monitoring and studying New England and Eastern Cottontails. He said that the rabbits you see “hopping around Warwick” are likely Eastern Cottontails, which are 20% larger than the New England species.
“They’re just doing what bunnies do, which is multiply,” Rittenhouse added. Healthy female rabbits typically birth three to four litters a year with an average of 5 per kit, according to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
Rittenhouse explained that these two species, though they look almost identical, are very different. The New England Cottontail, the only rabbit species native to New England–including Rhode Island, prefers young forests as habitats and thus are less visible to humans. Because they prefer grasses and shrubs, Eastern Cottontails have more proximity to humans. Rittenhouse said that in his research, whenever the Eastern Cottontail pops up, the population of New England Cottontails tends to dwindle.
“What you’re seeing is Eastern Cottontails taking advantage of the wonderful habitats that we, as humans, have created for them through our lawns and how we interact with and use the land,” Rittenhouse said. “In many respects, it’s changing forests into homes or developments with greenspaces and shrubs and all kinds of things that rabbits like around them.”
Rittenhouse shared some telltale signs of rabbits moving into your yard. First, he said, you’ll see them at potentially all times of day. He also recommended inspecting the yard for rabbit droppings, which he said resemble Coco Puffs. Rittenhouse said it’s also worth examining the flowers and shrubs that have been chewed up: rabbits’ teeth are offset a little bit, and they tend to enjoy gnawing on woody plants. He also shared that rabbits may repurpose the underground burrows of other creatures but prefer to nest in brush, shrubs or somewhere that can provide a “hiding cover.”
Ferriera added that “too many rabbits is not necessarily a bad thing,” but recognizes that some homeowners might not want them on their property. He recommends fencing around vegetable gardens because that also protects from other creatures.
Suzanne said that the rabbits have been “making a mess” of her garden. She said that usually the rabbits will eat grasses, but if it’s dry enough, they’ll move to leaves and vegetables. So far, fencing has not protected her garden from the rabbits’ appetite. She’s even questioning whether it’s worth it to keep gardening.
“It’s already more than a part time job for a garden anyway before you add this,” she added. “Why bother having a garden if you have to put that much into it?”
Rittenhouse said that rabbits “will try pretty much anything,” but he has found that planting marigolds around other plants has had mixed results with deterring rabbits. He thinks it depends on how hungry the rabbits are. He also recommended using foliar spray on your garden and reapplying it every time it rains.
“There’s not a lot that people can do to stop the spread of Eastern Cottontails,” Rittenhouse added. “They’re very comfortable living around humans.”
Ferreira said that the Department of Environmental Management’s main approach to rabbit populations is legally regulated hunting. From October 15 to the end of February, each registered hunter is allowed to harvest three rabbits a day. He said that they do not have the same data for rabbits as they do for deer because hunters are not mandated to report their kills. Ferreira added that hunting does not really control the rabbit population the way it does for deer because there is still a surplus.
Suzanne does not want to take any efforts that would kill the rabbits. She’s taken to conducting her own research, looking into sprays and plants that will slow the rabbits’ reign of destruction in addition to considering her own theories about why the population has grown so much.
“What in our life is making it so we’re noticing it now?” she asked.