The discovery of a cottontail nest does not necessarily constitute an emergency or a need for intervention. If the bunnies were not injured, the nest could be returned to its original condition, and the mother will continue caring for the babies.
Because the success rates of rehabilitating young cottontail rabbits are often much lower than those for other species, every effort must be taken to keep bunnies with the mother when possible.
Two misunderstandings about rabbit nests result in excessive interference:
First is the belief that the mother will abandon or kill the babies because the nest was disturbed or the babies were touched. This is a fallacy. The mother will NOT abandon or kill her babies. On rare occasions, she might move them, but will most likely just continue caring for them as usual.
The second misunderstanding comes from the finder’s not seeing the mother after the nest was discovered, convincing her that the nest was actually abandoned. The mother’s absence is part of the fundamental biology and defense of the nest. Understanding the behavior of the mother rabbit and why that behavior works to keep the nest from predators is important for the rehabilitator and should be relayed to the finder.
The location of the nest is essential to its thriving. The spot chosen often has to do with temperature, humidity, and location of first foods for the bunnies nearby; such as dandelion and clover.
The nest remains clean because the baby bunnies cannot defecate or urinate on their own until they are old enough to leave the nest. When the mother visits the nest to feed the bunnies, she stimulates them and eats the excrement, keeping the nest odor-free.
A nesting bunny’s scent glands have not yet developed, and they do not put off an odor of their own. They will remain odorless for much of their juvenile development. They absorb odors around them, becoming odor camouflaged, and blend into the environment.
The mother rabbit does have mature scent glands, however, and leaves a scent wherever she rests. Except for short visits to feed and tend to the kits, she stays away from the nest, so her own odor does not linger.
Although human scent at the nest or on the bunnies will not discourage the mother, it is possible to leave enough human scent at the nest so that a predator might get curious and find the nest. For this reason, handling should be minimized to only that which is necessary.
We are often asked if a nest can be moved because of dangers such as those from dogs. The answer is: NO! Because the babies do not put off an odor, even the mother cannot find them if they have been moved.
Nesting rabbits consume massive amounts of milk each feeding. The stomach capacity of young rabbits is two to three times that of most mammal babies, and, therefore, the rabbits require feedings to receive proper nutrition. Newborn bunnies only nurse two to three times in a twenty-four hour period. Within a week, one to two daily feedings is all that is required.
Since the mother’s visits are infrequent and brief, her perceived absence results, and a person finding and watching the nest might believe the nest has been abandoned.
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