(c) Gryph- if you repost this article, please post with a link back to my website.
Disclaimer: These recommendations may not apply to areas outside of the US. It is illegal in some areas of the US to try to keep a native wild rabbit in captivity.
There are at least sixteen different breeds of native rabbits in the US, including the oh-so-common cottontail. These native breeds are different than feral domestic rabbits, Feral rabbits are domestic rabbits (our domestic breeds are descended from European stock) that have either escaped or been abandoned by their owners. These two types of rabbits (native wild rabbits Sylvilagus spp. and Lepus spp. and domestic rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus) cannot interbreed. This is not to say that they will not attempt to mate- but because they have different chromosomes (21 pairs for cottontails and 22 pairs for domestic rabbits) the embryos will die before birth.
None of our native wild rabbit breeds have ever been domesticated. Because of this, wild native rabbits are very difficult to raise to adulthood in captivity. Young wild rabbits are difficult to raise and quick to die when removed from their natural environment. Rabbits hide their nests in plain view, often putting them in the open, sometimes even in the middle of the lawn or in brush piles or long grass.
I/My Dog/My Cat/Whatever Found An Orphaned Native Rabbit Baby I see posts online all the time about people who were mowing their lawns and discovered a nest of baby rabbits, or their kids found them, or their dogs won't leave a nest alone. I see people posting that they "rescued" said babies with the assumption that the mother abandoned them. They plan to bottle raise said kits, or some other nonsense. While well-meaning, my advise is... don't do it. Chances are high that your efforts will be wasted and the native rabbit kit will die while in your care. Fewer than 10% of "adopted" rabbits survive a week while well-intentioned humans try to care for them.
Native kits die in the wild for any number of reasons. They are extremely sensitive to stress and they often have not built up reserves of the natural antibodies or intestinal bacteria they get from their mother's milk. Because of this they aren't usually equipped to cope with stressful conditions, and anything outside their natural outdoor environment is stressful. Wild animals need to grow up in the conditions they were intended to live in as adults. It is also rare for a wild animal raised in captivity (assuming it survives to be released) to survive when re-released back to the wild.
Fortunately, most kits discovered- aka "rescued"- kits are already big enough to get along without human intervention! Native rabbits are often much smaller than our average domestic rabbits. Because of this, it can be difficult to determine age of a kit based on size. Most native rabbits are able to survive on their own at a couple of weeks old as long their stresses are not too great, as they will be developing their immunities and natural defenses in the wild. Living in an alien environment that is not their natural environment will be stressful and weaken their internal protections and reserves.
Leave the bunny outside. Chances are it's not an orphan at all. You attempting to care for the rabbit can be illegal, unnecessary and potentially harmful.
The Native Rabbit Mother Is Nowhere To Be Seen Native rabbit mothers are not typically watching over their nests during the day. They visit the nest intermittently- typically during dawn and/or dusk and only for a few moments at a time to quickly nurse the kits. While a doe is nursing her kits, she is vulnerable so rabbit milk is very, very high in nutrition and fat so that kits rarely need to nurse for very long- a few minutes at most. Just because you don't see the mother near the nest, does NOT mean that she has abandoned her kits. Native rabbit mothers do not sit on a nest to keep it warm. They build their nest with fur and grasses to help keep the babies warm in between feedings and will not return to it if they feel threatened. You can tell if the kits have been fed because the kits will have round bellies (not sunken in), their skin will be pink (not blue) and they will be active. If you hear them crying (baby rabbits are typically quiet, so crying is a sign they have not been fed), then you can assume that the kits are abandoned and you might consider contacting a wildlife rehabilitator or a veterinarian.
I Touched A Native Kit, Now It's Mother Will Abandon It The old wives' tale goes... once a native kit has acquired human scent then the mother will automatically abandon it. This is not true. After all, rabbits, squirrels, deer, and other wild animals live in and move through our world constantly (although it could be said that they have learned to co-exist with us taking over their natural territories). If native rabbits are making nests in our yards, it's a good bet that human scent is not going to stop them from taking care of their mothering duties.
What Should I Do With The Native Rabbit That I/We/They Found? Return the kit back to the wild. Ideally, put the kit back where you found it, cover it with some grass and walk away. If you are worried about a dog or cat returning to the nest, keep them away from the area until the rabbits are gone. It typically only takes a few days for the rabbits to move out. If the nest has been destroyed, you can relocate the rabbit to a field or area with long grass, and it ought to be able to adapt. At the age that most young rabbits are discovered, they are able to get by on their own and have probably already been exploring. If their eyes are open and they appear healthy, leave them be where they belong. If you are able to restore a disturbed nest, do so- keep it safe from your pets. If the kit is injured, contact a wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian immediately. If a nest has been flooded, is swarming with ants or bugs, or if there is blood in the nest, then clearly do not return the rabbit to the nest. You could try to recreate the nest 5-10 feet away and cover it with grass. You can check to see if the mother has visited the nest by covering it with a tic-tac-toe pattern of grass or small twigs (don't use string- that can get wrapped around kits' necks). As the mother accesses the nest, she will scrabble the grass covering, and then again when she leaves she will re-cover the nest, so you'll be able to tell if the grass is disturbed.
I Don't Want To Risk The Native Rabbit Not Surviving, I Think It Would Be Better Off With Me It's worth considering that not all native rabbits are meant to survive. It's natural and healthy for the rabbit population that many kits do not survive. Native rabbits perform their duty as food for other animals in the circle of life. In some areas, as a matter of fact, it is illegal to keep native wild rabbits in captivity. If you want a pet rabbit, adopt or purchase a domestic rabbit. Both you and the rabbit will be happier.
If I Can't Keep It, and Don't Want To (Or Can't) Return It To It's Nest, What Do I Do? Please really, really consider returning the kit to its nest- at least relocate the nest. If you aren't willing or able to do that, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator. They are experts at making sure wild animals can safely be returned to the wild.
How Do I Make A New Rabbit Nest You can relocate a nest if needed up to 10 feet away from the old nest. Dig a shallow hole about 3 inches deep and line it with as much of the original material (especially the mother's fur) as you can recover from the prior nest, Add dried grass as needed, and put the young native kits into it. Mother rabbits return to the nest to nurse only when they feel safe (typically at dawn and/or dusk or at night), so stay away from the new nest as much as possible. You can check to see if the mother has visited the nest by covering it with a tic-tac-toe pattern of grass or small twigs (don't use string- that can get wrapped around kits' necks). As the mother accesses the nest, she will scrabble the grass covering, and then again when she leaves she will re-cover the nest, so you'll be able to tell if the grass is disturbed. Wait at least 24 hours before checking the nest. You can tell if the kits have been fed because the kits will have round bellies (not sunken in), their skin will be pink (not blue) and they will be active. If you hear them crying (baby rabbits are typically quiet, so crying is a sign they have not been fed), then you can assume that the kits are abandoned and you might consider contacting a wildlife rehabilitator or a veterinarian.
How Do I Know If The Native Kits Need Help? If the young native kits have their eyes closed and ears back, they are too young to survive on their own. Cottontails, for example, are born naked but develop a full coat in a week. Their eyes open at about 10 days old and in 3 to 4 weeks they are fully weaned. As soon as their eyes open they begin the explore the world outside of their nest but usually return there to sleep. If a native rabbit kit feels cool to the touch, or if they are injured, or appear emaciated or dehydrated, then they may need intervention. Watch for round bellies and pink skin- those are signs of healthy well-fed rabbit kits. To test for dehydration, gently pinch the loose skin at the back of the neck. If it does not spring back immediately or stays "tented," then the rabbit is dehydrated and needs rehab immediately by a professional. Contact a local rabbit vet, the humane society or an animal shelter, or call a wildlife rehabber.