The Easter Bunny will hop into his big weekend on Sunday. Although no one sees him at work delivering baskets, take a look sometime for rabbits in the wild – in the yard, on a roadside, by the beach, and maybe even under a bird feeder for scraps at night.
The History cable channel’s website reminds readers that although the Easter Bunny’s origins are not defined, the rabbit’s symbolism of fertility and new life dates to ancient times and that a few sources ascribe the “mythical mammal” arriving stateside with German immigrants in the 1700s who settled in Pennsylvania. Children would build nests for a hare to lay colored eggs, which has since morphed into chocolate and other gifts.
Rabbits can be seen year round around here, and although they might remain off the radar, they’re part of the circle of life that Mother Nature nourishes. Two naturalists – Matt Cuskelly, who has spent three years among the animal keepers of Brookgreen Gardens’ Lowcountry Zoo, and Ann Malys Wilson, longtime interpretive ranger at Myrtle Beach State Park – shared some tidbits about these herbivores and their quiet, often unseen existence.
Cuskelly credited the Clemson University Extension 4-H Department for widening his knowledge about rabbits, and Wilson also researched their lifestyle. Both brought up the two types that live in coastal South Carolina: Eastern cottontail and marsh rabbits.
Mindful of presents given at this time of year, Cuskelly also reiterated that giving baby rabbits as pets requires altering one’s home and that they require just as much work and care as a dog or cat, and maybe more especially with “a fragile backbone” that can be broken easily. He also stressed the availability of rabbits that end up in rescue shelters.
Question | How prevalent are rabbits across the Grand Strand and Lowcountry?
Cuskelly | They’re fairly common. I see them quite a bit, especially along the side of a road, where there’s nice grass to eat.
Q. | What differentiates the two species we might see?
Cuskelly | They’re about the same size ... but they’re pretty difficult to tell apart from a distance. The cottontail’s main distinguishing factor is they have a bright, white tail.
Q. | On what food do rabbits subsist?
Cuskelly | They eat any fruits or vegetables they come across. ... They’re pretty hardy. There’s lots of different kinds of grass they like, and dandelions are not too prickly. Anything green.
Q. | How simple or routine is the life of these seemingly silent creatures?
Cuskelly | They’re very, very resourceful. If they have food, water and cover, those are the three things they need. They don’t need much space. Their home range is under 10 acres. I read somewhere that rabbits might spend their whole life on one acre.
Q. | What other contrasts do marsh rabbits have from cottontails?
Cuskelly | They like a bit more water. They’re actually pretty good swimmers. You find them only near water, and they look similar to cottontails, but with smaller ears, smaller legs and shorter tails.
Q. | What do rabbits provide in the cycle of life?
Cuskelly | They have a lot of predators, including birds of prey and bobcats. ... When you hear the phrase “breeding like a rabbit,” it’s because most of them get eaten within their first year. Eighty out of 100 don’t make it to 1 year old. ... Also, because they eat fruits and vegetables, I’m willing to bet they help spread seeds; their fecals are very good fertilizers. ... They’re important in the food chain.
Q. | What other reminders bear repeating for rabbits’ sake?
Cuskelly | Sometimes, people come across a nest of babies. Rabbits are born completely dependant on their mother ... and they’re confined to the nest for about two weeks. It’s a regular thing for the mother to leave the nest throughout the day. People might see nests and think they’re abandoned, but it’s best to just leave them alone. Their mothers leave in the day to go eat; she would probably draw more attention if she was there. ... People do that with birds, too – they think the nest is abandoned.
Q. | How long does the gestation period last?
Cuskelly | About a month. They can have six to 10 babies at a time.
Q. | What age might a rabbit attain?
Cuskelly | They can live up to 10 years in captivity, or longer sometimes.
Q. | Are rabbits visible across Brookgreen?
Cuskelly | You don’t see them in the day a whole lot; the squirrels have taken over. Rabbits are more nocturnal, and squirrels are active during the day.
Q. | When do rabbits come into view Myrtle Beach State Park, bordering the beach?
Wilson | Once spring gets here, I see them a lot during the day. They live in and around the park nature center.
Q. | How close to the beach do they turn up?
Wilson | Right behind the sand dunes, in the maritime grassland where the flowers are. ... I tend to see rabbits on the edge of habitats, at least in this park.
Q. | What traits about rabbits might intrigue anyone?
Wilson | I think it’s cool about their front teeth, the incisors, and they’re constantly growing. They always have to keep gnawing away at plant materials. Can you imagine if your teeth kept growing if you’re not eating?
Q. | Just how reproductive are rabbits?
Wilson | Some rabbits might have seven litters in one breeding season. The peak breeding season in May and June. It’s one reason why rabbits are fair prey; that’s why they produce so many young. ... They construct nests with holes in the ground.
Q. | How visible are rabbits across Myrtle Beach State Park?
Wilson | They’re more in the park area where the people are, and they’re cottontail rabbits. If you are near more swampy areas, they’re marsh rabbits, and they have a brown tail. At Huntington Beach State Park, you’ll see marsh rabbits.
Q. | On a survival-of-the-fittest scale, what other elements might rear up for rabbits?
Wilson | Feral cats: They could take down baby rabbits. Feral cats eat a lot of different things, but you don’t see feral cats taking down an adult bunny.
Q. | What other signs do rabbits leave to mark their presence?
Wilson | We do a “Tracks Among Us” program, with the animals in the park, so we talk a little bit about rabbits. Rabbits have a great sound. It’s really an “Oh!” sound; it’s really more a scream in running away.
Q. | When the subject of rabbits come up, what famous names come to mind?
Wilson | Bugs Bunny. ... He has two long ears and a white tail. He’s definitely not a marsh rabbit.