Thursday, July 17, 2008

UI Extension’s new website provides information about coexisting with wildlife

UI Extension’s new website provides information about coexisting with wildlife

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I usually enjoy watching wildlife, but I’ve had very different feelings toward the rabbits in my back yard this summer. Feelings more like the ones people have toward squirrels at their bird feeders, or like Wile E. Coyote has for the Roadrunner.

That’s because my rabbits have been feeding on the new prairie plants I put in this spring. At first they ate a little bit of everything--just to figure out what they really liked, I suppose. Lately, though, they leave the butterfly milkweed and little bluestem alone while they repeatedly chew other plants to the ground. It’s as ifthey are waiting to pounce whenever the spiderwort or the black-eyed Susans send up even a hint of new growth.

I had these rabbits in mind recently when I received an email from Wildlife Extension Specialist Laura Kammin saying that the website she has been building is now online. The site is called “Living with Wildlife” and it is a project of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and University of Illinois Extension. The purpose of the site is to provide people with information about Illinois wildlife, with an emphasis on animals that are adapted to life in urban and suburban settings.

So I surfed on over to find out what I could about coexisting with rabbits. Here’s what I learned.

The only kind of rabbits in my yard and most of Illinois are eastern cottontail rabbits. Cottontails are full size and sexually mature at just six months of age, and they really do breed like . . . well, you know. Female cottontails give birth to litters of four to six young as often as three times in a year. Good thing for them, too, because cottontails typically live only a year or so.

Some children, as well as adults of a certain sensibility, may be interested to learn that rabbits eat their own poop. After consuming your beloved plants they scamper off to a sheltered spot where they excrete lightly digested fecal pellets, which they then re-ingest for more thorough processing the second time around.

A fact that everyone should know about rabbits is that mothers leave their young alone in the nest on purpose, in order to not attract the attention of predators. So if you happen to find unattended baby rabbits it is important to leave them where they are—they do not need to be rescued.

How does one prevent rabbits from damaging plants? There are no easy, surefire answers to the question, but the “Living with Wildlife” website offers a number of possibilities. You can cut down on the amount of cover in your yard to make rabbits less comfortable there. And you can favor plants they don’t normally eat, although in tough circumstance they will eat just about anything. Or you can protect special plants with commercial repellents or wire mesh. My plan is to use domes made of hardware cloth to give new plants a fighting chance.

If you’ve got rabbit issues of your own, or questions about other animals, I encourage you to check out the “Living with Wildlife” website at [].