Our Man in Arlington

July 24, 2013 3:57 PM0 comments

It appears the descendants of Peter Rabbit have taken over Arlington.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a proliferation of rabbits on our suburban greens this year, and maybe you’re astonished that these commonly standoffish furry friends are suddenly willing to sit still, stare and quiver just a few feet from imposing humanoids.

During this heat wave, I’ve witnessed whole warrens of hot, cross bunnies scampering around and laying siege to my wife’s strategically maintained flower beds. So I consulted a county authority for the straight dope.

“This is definitely a bunny boom year,” said Arlington’s natural resources manager Alonso Abugattas, who reports a dozen or more weekly phone calls and emails about sightings to his Shirlington office. “Animal populations go in cycles, and this is the up peak of the cycle as far as rabbits as concerned.”

Exactly why is tough to say. It could be that the rabbits’ main predator – the citizens of the fox community – have suffered an epidemic of mange that has depleted their ranks. But that doesn’t necessarily protect the rascally rabbits because “everything wants to eat them,” Abugattas notes, citing crows, possums, raccoons, and some bigger birds of prey such as red-tail hawks and great horned owls. “Even large snakes eat the rabbits when they’re young,” he said, while the older rabbits get dined on by Arlington’s own foxes and coyotes.

The rabbit population is probably headed back down once the bunnies’ vulpine foes get healthy.

The good news for people who fancy cute visuals is that it doesn’t take much for the rabbits’ numbers to bounce back. “After all, they do breed like bunnies,” the naturalist said, “as many as seven times a year, though three times is more likely. You can see the math.”

Monogamy, my research tells me, is not a rabbit’s strong suit. The species also displays broad-minded appetites, consuming vegetation from grass to bark to twigs to buds to trophy-winning tulips. Plus they munch on their own droppings, the proverbial second bite at the apple.

Rabbit litters, typically of three to five, grow up and move out of “forms,” as nests are called, in about five weeks, at which point the mother is ready for another pregnancy. “A rabbit doesn’t live long,” Abugattas says. “Eighty percent don’t make it through the first year. Half don’t make it the first month.” The average lifespan is 18 months, though a few survive as senior citizens to age three.

Contrary to popular assumptions, cottontails do not live in burrows, he added. Their homes are more out in open, more like a depression or a divot in the bushes or tall grass, lined with twigs or hair. True, they can dive down a hole dug by, say, a groundhog, but they don’t live there. (At least not in North America. The literary bunnies in Peter Rabbit’s Europe do live in the ground, Abugattas explained.)

A rabbit’s universe is small – less than 100 yards. That means they know “every hole, gap in the fence and every thornbush when something’s coming after them” to find the best escape route, Abugattas said.

What’s fun for humans who wish to befriend old Peter is that eventually he stays calm in your presence. “If they see you a few times and you haven’t bothered them,” quoth the naturalist, “they start to figure you’re not a big deal.”

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