Kerfuffle!

We had a kerfuffle break out amidst the yard residents during the last twenty-four hours.

An unusually aggressive gray squirrel arrived yesterday mid-morning, dividing its time between ordinary hoovering up of seeds and rather aggressively attacking any other birds or squirrels that came near the spilled seed under the feeders. Squirrels often chase birds away from the spilled seed, but it’s not really a big deal. This squirrel, however, was unusually aggressive.

Then it escalated, jumping on top of one of the cottontails when it came near the (plentiful) seed under the feeder, scratching and biting the bunny furiously. Uh, oh. The bunny (most likely Tad) was injured, badly enough that it left a trail of blood drops as it fled. We never saw a squirrel do that before. Mr. Squirrel spent the rest of the afternoon and again this morning chasing all the ground-feeding birds and squirrels away from the feeders. It was even running up into the bushes and chasing the birds out of the bushes.

Young Grumps (the dominant bunny) showed up mid-afternoon today to take her place under her favorite bush.

Mr. Squirrel decided that he couldn’t allow that, and zoomed across the yard to roar into her from behind, the way he did the other bunny yesterday.

Big. Mistake.

Young Grumps isn’t her momma’s daughter and the dominant bunny for nothin’. She met him just as he took his flying leap at her, jumping up and kicking back, basting him squarely with her hind paws. The squirrel was knocked backwards, tumbling head over heels. She whipped around, ears flattened and dived into Mr. Squirrel. He took off and barely beat her — running for his life — escaping up into the bush. She sat on the ground right under him until the squirrel got up enough courage to leap out of the bush and flee the yard at top speed.

He hasn’t been back.

The yard is back to normal, full of ordinary squirrels and birds and bunnies.

The Bunny Hop

Young Grumps imitating a loaf of bread.

One of my friends asked a while back how we tell our cottontail rabbits apart, as they all look the same.

They do?

I guess we’ve been watching the cottontail crews for so long that I’ve forgotten that to most people they do all look the same.

Cottontails only come in one color, a sort of grayish brown. Technically their color is called “agouti,” which is quite different than “brown” in regards to the genetics behind coat color that are “under the hood” so to speak. If you pluck out (good luck with that!) a single hair from a cottontail’s flank and examine it, you’ll see that the hair isn’t brown at all. Instead, it’s made up of alternating bands of color which are from various amounts of yellow and black pigment. But to pretty much everyone but rabbit fanciers and coat color genetics hobbyists like me, cottontail bunnies are all grayish-brown. There are some pretty distinct differences you can see between rabbits if you look closely at patterning that does show up in their fur. The shape and size of head and ears differ from one cottontail to the next, too, as does their body size and shape. But those are all subtle distinctions. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time watching them, a cottontail bunny looks like a bunny looks like a bunny.

We often distinguish our cottontails by watching their behaviors, instead of by how they look. Usually a rabbit will have at least one distinct behavior that sets it aside from the other bunnies.

Young Grumps is a great example of that. She hates snow. As in “get this stuff away from me!” hates snow. Being a fairly assertive rabbit (as rabbits go), it makes for some pretty captivating shows to watch how she deals with it when it’s snowing, or after a deep snowfall.

She hates having snowflakes settle on her ears. When we’re having a heavy snowfall (like today), she jumps up in the air every so often and vigorously shakes her head, ears twitching, until her ears are free of snow.

She also hops higher on every fourth or fifth leap, when traversing the yard, and shakes her front paws midair.

Young Grumps standing tippy paws to avoid that yucky snow.

To avoid sitting in the snow as she eats, she’ll sometimes stand “tippy paws” on her hind feet, so that her tummy and butt are raised well above that nasty snow.

Young Grump thumping the snow flat.

Her most distinctive behavior, however, occurs when she uses her hind legs to tromp down any spot where she intends to spend a bit of time. She almost stands upright on her front paws as she brings down both of those big ol’ rabbit hind feet, thumping the snow down as she does. It’s best described as an angry bunny dance, the inverse of everything sweet you ever imagined in a bunny hop. In bunny speak, it’s pretty clear what she’s saying: “Take that, and that and that you $*%#^ snow!”

It’s hilarious to watch, and I’ve never seen another rabbit do it!

Feeder Frenzy

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.”

 Three cottontails--Young Grumps, Buns and Bouncer--lunching on sunflower seeds.

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!

Grump’s Easter Surprise

Most people think “Oh, how SWEET” when they imagine a bunny rabbit. Especially at Easter. You know the drill–”Easter Bunny” evokes the image of a fluffy long eared cuddly bunny with a darling expression, just chalk full of buttercups and sunshine.

They haven’t met Grumps.

Grumps the bunny rabbit Easter portrait

She sits like this, staring in the window at me, just to make sure that I know that the servants (aka Michael and I) have once again failed to provide her with a suitable assortment of fresh apples to go with the generous dollops of black oil sunflower seed she’s just hoovered up from underneath the bird feeders.

“Sweet”? Hah! Not.

She’s got so much personality, though, that I love her to bits. A few days ago a chipmunk came barreling up and whacked into her flank underneath the feeder. That’s the usual tactic chippies use to drive off the rabbits. HAH! She just lifted one big ol’ fuzzy hind foot, planted it very deliberately in chippie’s tummy and slowly PUSHED him away. You’ve never seen such a dumbfounded chipmunk!

For Easter today, the “servants” made sure Grumps got her very own fresh apple, which was tossed to her from our back porch.

Wish I’d thought to have my camera ready to record the moment. She hopped over to where it had landed, took a big ol’ chomp and then …

She smiled. Cross my heart!

May your Easter be filled with equally pleasant surprises!

(disclaimer: No, Dan, we aren’t encouraging an even bigger explosion in the local bunny population by feeding them apples daily … we only put out apples on Christmas and Easter. Honest!).

The Bunny Polka

Cottontail bunny tracks--lots of 'em

This time of year, lots of snow is the norm here in our part of Wisconsin. One of the neat things about snow is that we can use all the tracks left in it to get an idea about which varieties of critters visit us regularly.

Except…

The snow in our yard is trampled down by so many bunny tracks that it looks like we’re the nightly hot spot for the Bunny Hop.

Having watched them last night, I figured out what they’re really dancing.

Our bunnies polka.

Cottontail bunny Grumbles, doin' the Bunny Polka

Shoulda guessed. They are Wisconsin bunnies, and in Wisconsin pretty much everybody loves a good polka, after all! Sorry about the image quality, but this was shot through a double-pane window, at very late dusk–when Grumbles thought he was safe from having his bunny butt immortalized on Butter Side Down.

He’s one of Grump’s kids, and likes to snooze in the sun under the same dogwood bush that she likes–this one.

Grumbles, son of Grumps, Cottontail bunny

Yeah, yeah, I recognize that bunny stare. I’ll go put the camera away, so Grumbles can quit eying me and go back to dancin’.