Last week’s article went into depth about what to do if you find a baby bird. Today I want to continue in that theme and discuss what to do if you’ve found a baby rabbit. They’re notoriously difficult to care for even in professional rehabilitation settings, and because their mothers often leave them alone for hours at a time, well-meaning people assume they’re abandoned and take them away. Unfortunately this is essentially kidnapping them, and their chances of survival are significantly lower than if they’d been left to their mother’s care.
Fast Facts about Baby Bunnies
Baby rabbits are altricial, meaning they’re born helpless. They have no fur and their eyes and ears are closed, and they’re completely dependent on their mother. Because she raises them alone and can’t take them with her, she must leave them alone while she goes to find food for herself. She hides them in a nest, and only comes back to visit them at dawn and dusk to briefly feed them, before leaving again.
The baby rabbits will remain in the nest anywhere from three to five weeks. During that time they grow their fur and become able to see and hear. Their scent glands haven’t yet fully developed, which means they don’t have a distinctive aroma that can attract predators. Part of why their mother keeps her distance is so that she doesn’t make the nest smell excessively “rabbity”.
Speaking of smell, it’s a myth that getting your own scent on a baby rabbit will cause the mother to abandon the nest. Because a baby rabbit’s instinct to stay in the nest is so strong, they will remain quiet even if a predator approaches. Close calls happen all the time, and if there are survivors to be found even after an attack the mother will often return to care for them.
If You Do Find a Baby Rabbit…
Okay, so let’s suppose you’re walking in your yard or across a field and you come across a nest of baby rabbits. What should you do?
Well, the quickest answer is “leave them alone”. Mama is likely nearby, and your presence is stressing out the babies–and possibly the mother, too. Wild rabbits have a low stress threshold, especially when young, and the more you mess with them the more detrimental it is to their health. Take a quick picture if you absolutely must, and then head on your way.
If you’re able to observe the nest from a safe place, such as from inside your home, keep an eye out at dusk or dawn. You might just get to see the mother make a quick visit to her young. If you’ve gone several days without seeing her, make a tic-tac-toe grid of string or flour around the nest and see if it ends up being disturbed; if so, she’s likely just being very sneaky about her visits. If a nest has been truly abandoned, apart from the lack of disturbance around the site, you may notice the babies are looking thinner or dehydrated. They may also be crying or otherwise obviously distressed.
If you find a single baby rabbit that is still very small all by itself, it may have gotten lost; see if you can relocate the rest of the babies and return it to the nest, and check their condition quickly before you go. Not every lone bunny is an orphan, though. Remember that they can be independent as early as three weeks of age. If the baby you find is fully furred with open eyes, can hop around on its own, and is at least the size of a baseball, it’s likely old enough to be on its own.
It is incredibly important that you NOT remove a baby rabbit from the nest unless you are absolutely certain it has been abandoned. Most baby rabbits that end up in rehab will die, even with the best professional care. Formula is not a good substitute for their mother’s milk, and they also need the antibodies they get from her while nursing. The stress from captivity also frequently leads to capture myopathy, in which the rabbit’s muscles are so flooded by lactic acid that they don’t receive enough oxygen and the tissues die. It’s a pretty horrible way to die, quite honestly, and even a baby rabbit that is simply picked up and handled before being put back in the nest can suffer from it.
In the event the baby or entire nest truly has been abandoned, or if one of the bunnies is injured or ill, call your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not try to care for the rabbits on your own; as mentioned, they have very specific dietary needs, and they are incredibly fragile.
And like I said last week, part of the reason rabbits and other prey animals have so many young at once, and often multiple litters/broods each year, is because most of them won’t survive to adulthood. They instead go to feed a wide variety of predators, scavengers, detritivores, and decomposers in their ecosystem. It may be sad to think of cute little baby bunnies dying, but consider also that cute little baby foxes and hawks and owls will starve to death without enough food, and nothing in nature truly goes to waste either way. Sometimes the right choice is to walk away, and allow nature to unfold as it will.
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