Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Gift of Clover for Our Cottontails

Recently the Wildlife In Need Center's mammal nursery has been filled with infant and juvenile Eastern cottontails—24 of them to be exact. Twice a day, the summer interns have a “bunny party” as they sit down and individually feed each cottontail. Each of the Cottontails grows bigger everyday; they are also getting quite resistant to being handled. Cottontails are naturally a high-stressed species in captivity, so we take precautions to assure the bunnies stay calm and safe, such as wrapping them into a ‘bunny burrito’ with a washcloth while feeding to keep them secure. They like to jump, so wrapping them reduces risk of injury. While Cottontails are in the nursery the interns must also work as quietly as they can to reduce stress.

Infant cottontails are brought in for many reasons. Some people find a bunny nest on their property, see no mother, and bring the bunnies in under the suspicion that they are abandoned. Other times, a pet dog or cat may get into a nest and injure some of the cottontails. We have many young rabbits brought into the center, especially in the months of June and July. This year, 153 Eastern Cottontails were admitted in June alone!

The rehabilitation process begins with the infant cottontails in a container with lots of fleece blankets and a heating pad. They are tube-fed warm formula twice a day, the frequency they are fed by their mother in the wild. When they reach about 2 weeks, they are moved to a larger enclosure with a hut to hide in and lots of hay and greens to eat. The weaning process is begun as the bunnies eat more solid food and need less formula. At 3 weeks, they are usually fully weaned and very active. Their fur has become very thick and fluffy and they act wild. At 4-5 weeks, they are ready for release.

The Eastern Cottontail is the most common rabbit in the majority of the U.S. They are primarily nocturnal, but can also be seen at dawn and dusk. Though fairly small, Eastern Cottontails can leap 10-15 feet! A unique thing that distinguishes them from squirrels and other rodents is that instead of using their front paws to eat, they eat on all fours, using their nose to adjust their food. Cottontails cannot sit on their hind legs, except to briefly reach for food above their heads. For this reason, they cannot extend their front paws for the length of the eating process. Regardless, the bunnies at WINC have a healthy appetite, consuming cups and cups of leafy greens and timothy hay every day.
Staff had something very neat happened recently involving a child from our surrounding community. Last week our door bell rang after office hours and it was a boy who had hand-picked clovers for our nursery of cottontails. He asked our staff member how long his container of about 2-3 cups of clover would last in our nursery. When he was told they would be gone in a day because we currently had so many bunnies and they love clover so much, he came back about a hour later with an entire garbage bag full of them! It was SO sweet of him and the Cottontails LOVED them. (Thank you for hand-picking those clovers for the cottontails in our care).

Once the cottontails reach 4-6 weeks old and are between 120-200 grams, they will be taken to release sites and set free to live on their own. Release sites are chosen from a list of willing people with appropriate property. Areas of land with lots of growing natural greens that have no pesticides or other harmful chemicals used on them are our ideal release sites. We are very excited for the cottontails to be released… it is very rewarding to see an animal raised from infancy finally returned to its natural habitat.
Update: 17 cottontails were released on 7/21/13. Our remaining 7 rabbits are reaching release age and should be getting back to the wild soon.

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