The volunteers from Master Gardeners get a little nervous when they see cottontail rabbits hopping around the Heritage Garden at Crossroads. Cottontails would simply love to breech the garden fence and feast on the vegetables. According to Lee Somerville, who is the chairperson of our garden team and also the author of the award winning book Vintage Wisconsin Gardens, rabbits were not that much of a problem in pioneer days. Probably, any rabbit that came near a homestead probably ended up on the dinner table.
These days, there are lots of rabbits about, and their population will increase as summer progresses. Truth is, all the jokes about multiplying rabbits …they are mere understatements of reality. Breeding season for rabbits lasts from March (well, this year it was probably later) to September. The phrase “mad as a March hare” refers to the males of the rabbit clan which begin experiencing raging hormones early in the spring. (Apparently, their hormones continue to rage all summer.)
In spring, the females come into heat often, but this condition last for a very brief time–say, an hour. And if the male approaches a female who is not in heat, a remarkable dance ensues. The male approaches; the female jumps over him. This happens repeatedly.
In their book A Time to Be Born, Lorus and Margery Milne described the interaction. “She spins around and jumps over his back so quickly that he cannot touch her. Yet she often leaves her mark by urinating on him as she jumps. Time after time, the two may repeat this peculiar ceremony until, [when] his ardor is dampened and his fur is wet, the male departs to clean himself and find a more cooperative mate.”
When a female is in a receptive mood, however, all the males in the area sense it and gather. In behavior very similar to the deer rut, the buck rabbits vie for the privilege of mating. If one buck is obviously dominant, the others back off. But if several males are evenly matched, a fight breaks out. Those hind legs are powerful.
Actual mating is concluded quickly and in about 28 days, baby bunnies (usually three to eight) are born. Soon after the birth of one litter, the female comes into heat again. Cottontails can produce three litters a year. But here is the clincher: female rabbits become sexually mature at the age of three months. Consequently, about a third of the rabbit kits born each summer are already have offspring of their own by fall.
We would be completely overrun by cottontails if they all survived. But they don’t. In fact, most rabbits fail to make it to their first birthday and in a normal year, only about 20% of all the cottontails survive the winter.
But that seems to be the way of nature. When the survival rates are low, reproductive rates tend to be high. And that seems to be true even for humans. In the United States today, the birth rate is quite low in contrast to those countries in which infant and childhood mortality is high. In Wisconsin during the pioneer era, most couples had many babies in hopes that at least some of their children would survive.
Death was an ever-present reality in the 1800s. On Sunday, June 27, at 2:00 the Door County Historical Society will present the program: Funeral Practices a Century Ago. Funeral director Todd Huehns will describe how early settlers mourned loved ones in their homes and how funeral parlors came into being. This free program will be held in the Collins Learning Center, and the Village will be open for tours as well.