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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Rabbits, wild and domestic

Every morning, our indoor rabbit friend comes out of her hutch when the dogs go outside.

It’s a routine: I tie the big dog to the post and let the little dog run around while I free the bunny. She gets her pats and chats for a while, then I let the little dog back inside and take the big dog for a ramble. When we come back, 45 minutes or an hour later, I tie the big dog outside again, and come back in for more bunny time. She might need her bedding replaced and her water checked, and she certainly needs fresh greens from outside: a mixed salad of grasses, plantain weed (her favorite) and clovers.

Once her greens and a bowl of bunny food are in place, she’ll hop into her hutch and settle down to munching. And once her door is locked behind her, the dog can come back in.

Before the big dog came to live with us, the rabbit’s door was never closed and she could hop about at will. But while our former big dog would share her bed with the bunny, the current big dog is overly rambunctious and we fear what might happen if she got too close to the rabbit. As it is, the dog likes to lick the rabbit through the cage.

The little dog, for the record, coexists peacefully with the rabbit, anywhere in the house.

Rabbits are tough. They can bite and kick and will fight to defend themselves and their young. We’ve had other pet rabbits who had to learn not to bite, but rabbits are smart. They’ve always come around.

On my morning rambles with the big dog and on my commute to work, I’ve seen more wild rabbits this year than I can remember in a long time. I don’t know if there’s a larger population because of the mild winter, or if there are fewer predators for some reason. Around our woods, we still seem to have plenty of foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls, so I have to think it was just a good winter for rabbit survival.

My husband, for the record, does not think there are any more rabbits this year than usual. But my friend in Wilton has noticed more, and says her backyard, next to a wooded ravine, is full of baby rabbits. I’ve seen baby rabbits too, in the hedgerow between our house and the neighbor’s.

And that neighbor has seen them. Last week he had to fence in his vegetable garden — the first time I’ve seen him put anything more than a strand of electric wire to keep out deer.

“Garden’s looking nice,” I called out to him and his wife as I walked by one day last week.

“It will be, if we can keep the rabbits out,” his wife called back.

Our own gardens have remained rabbit free so far, maybe because of the dogs. But maybe the wild bunnies will start heading over if it gets harder for them to eat my neighbor’s garden.

New York’s most common rabbit is the eastern cottontail, a prolific little creature that averages 16 inches long and weighs between 2 and 3 pounds. Our woods also have the larger snowshoe hares, but it’s the cottontails I’ve been seeing peeking their noses out from bushes and high grasses.

Most wild rabbits only live about two years, because they have lots of predators and because they don’t deal well with traffic. They make up for their limited time on Earth by reproducing as much as possible — cottontails can have four or five litters a season, each with four or five babies.

Keeping those large families out of the garden can be tricky. A wire fence 2 to 3 feet high is good, but the bottom needs to be buried at least 6 inches, and angled outward, because rabbits are good diggers.

Fencing is expensive, though, and I’ve known gardeners who have resorted to other tricks to keep rabbits out: plastic owls, pinwheels or pie pans that will rattle in the breeze, mothballs, blood meal or corn husks soaked in vinegar. Some garden stores sell fox urine or some kind of big cat urine to sprinkle around the outside edge of the garden; some male gardeners I have known do the job themselves. We used to take our beagle out to pee around the edge of the garden at night the last time we had any rabbit trouble, which has to be a dozen years ago or more.

We certainly don’t want rabbits eating through our lettuce, peas, beets and beans — their favorite vegetable garden treats — but having raised rabbits, we are fond of them. Some of our farmer friends, on the other hand, say they’re no different from any other vermin rodent (rabbits, for the record, are not rodents) and are more than willing to shoot them on sight, and then eat them for supper.

My husband grew up with rabbits, and often tells us stories of their lives in a penned yard under the lime tree in the backyard in Florida. He makes it sound like rabbit paradise, and is so convinced of their intelligence he claims he can explain to the wild rabbits why they should stay out of our garden or, if they do enter, why they should stick to feeding on the wild mustard and leave our lettuce alone.

I still maintain it’s the dogs keeping the rabbits away, but from our house rabbits I am aware how smart these animals are. They like order and routine, but they can learn new patterns quickly. Last week, for example, our bunny incorporated a new pattern into her morning routine: niece time. Now she doesn’t want to go back into her cage before sitting next to one of the little nieces staying with us, and getting patted by a little hand.

I still view wild rabbits as a sign of environmental health, since they are so easily affected by herbicides. Years ago, DDT wiped out most of the wild rabbits before it was banned in the United States in 1972. I remember lots of rabbits in our yard when I was little, but I also remember my parents commenting on their return after being missing for so long.

Maybe they are nothing more than pests when they aren’t pets, but I’m always happy to see rabbits in the wild, twitching their noses as they peer out of a clump of vegetation. I just like it better when the vegetation is a clump of dandelions, not a row of beets.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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