Understand rabbit behaviour

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16th July 2010
Submitted by heather

Spring and early summer are the best times for watching rabbits. Find a warren, then get in position for first light and settle down with a pair of binoculars for a fascinating day.

Understand rabbit behaviour

Spring and early summer are the best times for watching rabbits.

The vegetation is still short and there’s a lot going on. Find a large warren in the open that you can watch from a high vantage point, then get in position for first light and settle down with a good pair of binoculars or a telescope for a fascinating day. 
 

HOW TO IDENTIFY RABBITS
 
  • Smaller than both species of hare, with hind legs shorter in relation to body size.
  • Lacks black tips to ears seen in brown hare.
  • Generally greyish-brown, with reddish neck, chest and scrotum.
  • Species is very variable – some are sandy-yellow, grey or black. Black rabbits are particularly common on islands such as Skomer.
  • Sexes are hard to tell apart.
  • The doe has a narrower head and less-rounded profile than the buck.
  • In the breeding season, the buck’s scrotum and doe’s nipples (when lactating) are visible when standing or sitting on their hind legs.

 

RABBIT BEHAVIOUR TO WATCH OUT FOR:

 

Activity
 
  • Rabbits are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, but will emerge in daylight where undisturbed.
  • Their home range is very small – often only a few hundred square metres – and they’re rarely seen far from a burrow or dense cover.
 
Predators
 
  • Foxes regularly visit warrens, often moving aimlessly on the ground above. They take unwary rabbits in a sudden rush, or crouch outside an active hole to catch them as they emerge.
  • Stoats can be seen rushing though warrens, entering active holes and looking for and jumping onto unwary rabbits, often from a couple of metres away. Small rabbits are killed by a bite to the back of the neck; larger rabbits may die of shock.
  • Stoats may lick blood from a victim’s wound prior to eating it, hence the myth that stoats suck blood.
  • Buzzards take rabbits by a steep swoop. They can carry off large adults that are still alive.
  • Myxomatosis is still common in some areas. Severely infected rabbits appear lethargic and are vulnerable to predators.
 
Social behaviour
 
  • Look for rabbit burrows in banks, field edges and even on flat ground. Rabbits often lie up in brambles and other thickets where they create ‘forms’ that are smaller than those of hares (which, in any case, are generally found in the open).
  • Rabbits often live in social groups, with a few males and more females. They have linear hierarchies, with dominant males siring most young and dominant females monopolising the best breeding sites.
  • Fights for dominance can cause serious bite and claw wounds. Some rabbits even die during these battles.
  • Males from adjacent social groups establish territorial boundaries by mutual paw-scraping and parallel running.
  • Faeces are often found in latrines on anthills or similar locations, or in scrapes. These droppings are used for scent-marking. They are darker than other faeces because they’re coated with a secretion from the anal glands.
 
Breeding
 
  • Rabbits breed from January to the end of August. The onset of breeding is delayed in severe winters, and success rates are low in wet years. The breeding season is also generally longer where densities are lower.
  • When mating, the buck chases the doe and often urinates on her (enurination). He also rubs his chin gland on her during copulation.
  • The doe produces a series of litters of three to seven young. Productivity depends on population density, ranging from 10 young per year (in very high densities) to as many as 30.
  • Young are born in warrens, though rabbits can breed above ground in dense cover. Young of subordinate females may be born in single-entrance burrows (known as stops) that are sealed when the female is absent.
  • The doe visits her young once a night to suckle. Visits only last a few minutes to avoid attracting predators.
  • The young stay in the burrow for 18 days and are weaned at 21-25 days.

 

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