Thriving and surviving

The Baltimore Sun

Cheap gas may be scarce these days. Along with Chesapeake crabs and oysters. But rabbits, it seems, we have aplenty.

Whether it was a mild winter, or ample spring rain that produced lush summer grass, the furry rodents seem to be having a very productive nesting season this year.

You can see them hunkered down and munching in deep suburban lawns, leaping into the brush ahead of someone's house cat or pooch or, on a bad day, splayed and still on the asphalt.

"I take my beagles out to train them maybe two mornings a week, and there's bunnies around. We've been seeing young rabbits. It's been a successful nesting season," said Tom Mathews, 57, a retired wildlife biologist and rabbit hunter in Cumberland.

Whether it has been extraordinarily so is debatable. Given half a chance, rabbits have always been a prolific species.

"It's just the rabbits doing their thing," said Bob Beyer, associate director of the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service. "If you're gonna see a lot of rabbits, this is the time. It's breeding season, and they'll nest and re-nest, and you'll see a lot of young around."

Rabbits can't afford not to. Eastern cottontails live for only nine or 10 months. They'll nest and raise a brood, then nest once or twice more if they can. And their young may mature and add grandbabies to the population before the season is out.

Left alone, they would overrun the landscape. But hardly anyone leaves them alone, Mathews said.

"There's a lot of predation. Hawks, owls, foxes, skunks, raccoons. Some people call them [rabbits] the Big Mac of the food chain," he said.

Coyotes, and especially domestic cats and dogs, do their share to keep the rabbit population in check, too. So do people, although pressure from human hunters is not a significant factor, and it's becoming less so.

During the 2000-2001 hunting season, DNR licensed 12,646 rabbit hunters who took out 66,647 rabbits. Five years later, there were half as many hunters, who spent less time per capita in the field. Their harvest was 52 percent lower, at just 34,467 rabbits.

"Small game hunting in Maryland has been on the decline," Mathews said. "The primary factor for that is the change in habitat across the state."

Three or four decades ago, abandoned farmland offered abundant brushy cover and hedgerows - ideal rabbit habitat, he said. But "as farms reverted back to woodland, much of that brushy cover was lost. ... The opportunity for a place to hunt rabbits has been reduced significantly."

At the same time, however, suburban growth has provided even better opportunities for rabbits - lots of rich, limed and fertilized grass, with plenty of ornamental shrubs for cover. And best of all, no human predators. Cars, maybe. But no guns.

"Rabbit numbers on those habitats are probably as high as anywhere in the state, but you can't hunt," Mathews said.

Too bad for Mathews and Mike Deckelbaum, manager of the Rocky Gap State Park, who are old rabbit hunting buddies. They and their eight beagles hunt regularly during the rabbit season, which runs from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28 in Maryland. Hunters can take up to four rabbits a day.

"Mike and I enjoy the dog work," Mathews said. "It's the connection you have with your dogs." Out in the field, the dogs or the hunters will "jump" a rabbit, which takes off running. The dogs give chase.

"They bark and bay. They love to chase the rabbit," he said.

The rabbit, highly territorial, will typically run in a wide circle, doubling back to where he started. If he doesn't disappear into a hole or a hedgerow along the way, he will run back within range of the hunter - perhaps 25 yards away. A light load from a small shotgun will bring him down.

The beagles hardly ever catch the rabbits. "They're tuned and trained to chase and track that smell," Mathews said. Once on the trail, they won't be called back. "I've gotta wait for them to bring the rabbit around and I shoot the rabbit, or they actually lose the trail."

But it's not really about the rabbits, he insists. "I enjoy the dog work, the sport, the camaraderie; sharing the day outdoors, the coffee and McDonald's; being tired at the end of the day; and a good nap. That's what it's about."

Then it's about the rabbits.

"They're delicious," Mathews said. "I put it in a crock pot. Mike makes a rabbit stew ... it doesn't really taste like chicken, but it's got a texture and looks a little like chicken. ... Some people quarter it and fry it."

Beyer said that a half-century ago rabbit fur was used for glove lining. But no more. "The market for pelts ... if it's out there, I don't know about it."

Also gone is the New England cottontail - a larger sub-species of rabbit that once could be found in Western Maryland counties.

Now they have bears.

An article in Monday's Maryland section incorrectly described rabbits as rodents. Until the early 20th century, they were considered rodents. But no more. Among other distinguishing traits, rabbits have four upper incisors, while rodents have two. Rabbits are part of a separate order of mammals called Lagomorpha, which includes hares and pikas.The Sun regrets the error.
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