Managing ‘Rabbitat” – Rabbit Habitat – at Riveredge Nature Center

At Riveredge, we’re continually working to create a more robust habitat for native and migratory species. How can we best do that? Generally by making sure that we’ve planted the plants and trees that supply the sustenance and cover needed by wildlife. One species that generally doesn’t need much help is the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). As the old adage goes, rabbits are pretty quick to procreate, and providing habitat for rabbits, or ‘rabbitat’ as the Riveredge Land Manager likes to call it, can have consequences for other plant and animal species across the property.

Ideal rabbitat is a small pile of branches and brush to hide for cover and near healthy trees and plants for rabbits to eat.
Generally, when safely cutting down a tree, the most time is spent surveying the way a tree is leans, the direction of the wind, where its heaviest branches exist, and other factors.

Rabbits have a voracious appetite, and can mow down crops of plants year-round, sometimes including uncommon species we’re working to proliferate throughout the property. As much as we might expect they wouldn’t affect trees standing tall in the forest, just a few inches from the ground rabbits can permanently injure a tree. Rabbits will nibble around the circumference of a tree, the term used for this behavior is “girdling.” Beavers are more well known for this practice, as a beaver gnawing into a tree is much more obvious. Rabbits, however, can have the same negative impact on individual trees but don’t provide the same ecosystem benefits beavers do.

In certain spaces across the property we’ll create rabbitat, while in others we’ll actively discourage it. One of the easiest ways to discourage rabbitat is to burn excess brush. Why wouldn’t we burn it in all circumstances? Some areas of the property wouldn’t respond as well to a fire, or it’s located near a habitat or location that isn’t very fire resilient. Buildings, in certain instances, for example.

Riveredge staff and volunteers work together on a prescribed burn of common brush rabbitat.

Part of our ongoing challenge is to manage and conserve these 379 acres of habitat in a way that benefits the most native and migratory species possible. Sometimes people will say, “Conserve it? What’s to conserve – it’s already a part of Riveredge!” A good parallel is to imagine a typical lawn. A person probably cuts their lawn once or twice a week in summertime. Now imagine your lawn is 379 acres of various forests, prairies, creeks, wetlands, ponds, and rising or lowering water along the river banks. That’s a lot of space to maintain and conserve. We’re continually exploring the most effective methods to provide habitat for vulnerable populations while working to thwart invasive species encroachment. Restoring and conserving the Riveredge property is indeed an ongoing project, and one in which we lovingly engage.

When taking down the trees in the above video, we left some rabbitat on the other side of our storage barn. Burning off all these branches and stumps near a 100-year-old wood barn – even surrounded by snow – wouldn’t be a smart plan. Hosting some rabbitat isn’t all bad, though. Small mammals such as rabbits and squirrels unintentionally provide sustenance for many of animals we enjoy watching in the wild, such as hawks, owls, eagles, and even foxes, coyotes, and weasels. To eradicate all rabbitat would force these charismatic raptors and mammals to go elsewhere for their prey. Additionally, these large branches have made beautiful habitat for other creatures spending time at Riveredge Nature Center…

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