Recognizing a Cottontail In Need
There are some basic things to know about cottontails. Rabbit mothers only visit their nests twice a day; usually around dawn and dusk. She is only at the nest for about 10 – 15 minutes so watching for mom is nearly impossible. She will nibble at grass as she approaches the nest and when she reaches the nest she will discreetly scrabble away the grass covering the nest while the kits nurse from underneath her. Then she will scrabble the grass back over the nest and continue to nibble as she moves slowly away. The casual observer would never know she even had a nest in the vicinity.
Note: Juvenile cottontails are out of the nest at around 4 weeks old. Bunched up they are about the size of a tennis ball with ears about 1 inch long. They do not need to be rescued unless they are in obvious trouble.
Finding a nest or uncovering one is not reason to do a rescue. If you are concerned you can pick up one of the babies to check for a full, rounded tummy. If that’s the case, then mom is still taking care of them. Leave them alone, but place one tiny drop of vanilla on the forehead of any baby you have touched. This will confuse the human scent for mom. But please note that too much vanilla will make the nest smell like a bakery and attract predators or bugs to the nest.
If you are concerned about a dog or cat, or mowing too close to the nest, place a plastic laundry basket upside down over the nest. Have two small doors cut out (the size suitable for a Netherland Dwarf) on opposite sides of the laundry basket at ground level (one door is a trap.) Place something very heavy on top of the basket to hold it in place so a dog cannot tip it over or stake it to the ground.
If the babies have left the nest and their eyes are still closed, then something has happened to mom and they are orphans. Only something drastic will make blind babies leave the nest.
If there are bugs in the nest or water filling the nest, rescue the babies.
If you are in doubt as to whether mom is still around, place several strings across the top of the nest in something like a tic-tac-toe fashion. This is best done before dusk. When mom visits she will scrabble away the strings just like the grass and then scrabble everything back, but she can’t put the strings back into a pattern. You can also sprinkle flower around the nest to see if mom’s footprints show up.
Rabbits are born with a sterile digestive system. They need their mother’s digestive bacteria to help them digest and prevent infection. Nursing also lends mom’s immune system to them. This is why so many orphans die shortly after being fed new foods. They don’t have the digestive bacteria for the new food and they don’t have the immune protection to fight off the bad bacteria consumed with the food.
This is the same reason why we don’t give fresh greens to domestic baby bunnies that aren’t being nursed by a mom. If mom is eating greens and she is still nursing the babies then they are getting the right digestive bacteria to help them and they can safely start eating greens right out of the nest. If they don’t have mom then they can have a very bad reaction to fresh greens (even death) until they are at least 4 months old and have developed a good amount of digestive bacteria on their own unless you start them extremely slowly on tiny bits of green.
Injured adult cottontails should always be taken to a wildlife rehab place as quickly as possible!