No, not it’s not birds … it’s bunnies.
With the severe weather and deep snow cover, dropped seed from our bird feeders becomes a dependable source of good high energy food cottontails seek out. Most winters we only have one to two bunnies that consider our yard their “home” territory and that come regularly to harvest this bounty. Unusually, this year we have four: Young Grumps, Buns, Bouncer and Thadeus — Tad for short, as he’s just a little tad of a bunny.
Eastern cottontails are not the same critters as pet bunnies. Although they look quite similar, pet bunnies and cottontail bunnies are totally different species. When you look “under the hood,” you discover just how different: cottontails have 21 pairs of chromosomes, while domestic rabbits have 22. The two species have different habits and behaviors, and don’t interbreed.
Pet bunnies are descendants of rabbits that originally lived in Europe. They are happiest living in communities called warrens, seeking out each other’s company, and live in communal underground burrows they dig.
Cottontail bunnies, in contrast, only tolerate each other (to varying degrees). A cottontail will dig a small scrape into the ground, or snow, which it doesn’t share with other cottontails. Their life is mostly solitary, and above ground. When they do come into common areas (like under our feeders), they observe a bunny hierarchy that’s definitely a pecking order.
Young Grumps is the dominant rabbit. She feeds first, and the others move out of her way when she gives them a “bunny stare” that says “move!” Bouncer and Buns are, oddly for cottontails, buddies. They hang out together, usually as close as about three or four feet apart. Tad, a late-comer, is a bit smaller than the other bunnies, and keeps a respectful distance from the other three, fleeing from the others in any altercation.
With our extreme cold, and deep snow, our cottontails tolerate each other in closer proximity than they do other times of the year, even at the common “mess halls” (aka feeders). They’ll get as close as three or four feet apart without any apparent problem. Here’s a rather fuzzy photo (sorry–taken through a double pane window with drizzle outside!) of a typical pattern we see when the bunnies are in “winter formation.”
It isn’t a peaceful contented sharing — it’s more of a truce under extreme conditions. Woe to the less dominant bunny who pushes too close to a more dominant bunny! Then a chase ensues, with the dominant cottontail driving the other from the seed.
Less dominant cottontails usually flee, but not always. Then, like I watched happen yesterday, an elaborate dance ensues. Bouncer, (bottom right in the photo) who has a bit of an attitude, encroached beyond Young Grumps’ acceptable sharing zone. Young Grumps (bottom left) jumped in the air, sometimes jumping right over Bouncer, while kicking out with the hind legs. At this point Bouncer fled, with Young Grumps in pursuit. Buns (upper left) had already split, back when the altercation began. YG chased Bouncer across the entire yard before turning back. YG then hopped back under the feeder and finished lunch. Bouncer and Buns stayed away until Young Grumps hopped off to settle back in an established scrape, and digest in peace.
I’ve seen fights that become extreme, at times, where two cottontails get into a boxing scuffle, standing on their hind paws and sparring with each other until one finally turns and retreats, usually with the winner in pursuit. It looks cute, but it’s serious business if you’re a cottontail.
Lunch over, the bunnies all retreated to their own usual spots, hunkered down under various bushes. In this cold, they don’t look like rabbits. With their fur fluffed out to insulate better, and their paws all tucked underneath, they look like round furry basketballs with ears!