Mar 10, 2024 - News

Backyard bunny boom? Mild winter was a win for rabbits, experts say

Illustration of many rabbits piled on top of each other.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

If you're noticing more chubby bunnies in your yard this spring, the weird winter might be to blame.

The big picture: Record warmth and sparse snowfall in the Twin Cities was a win for wild rabbits and other urban critters, as ample access to food allowed them to fill up.

What they're saying: "Everything is just so much more pleasant when you don't have to work as hard to get food, stay warm and all those sorts of things," University of Minnesota Extension wildlife specialist John Loegering told Axios.

Between the lines: Wild rabbits have a pretty low survival rate. The population tends to thin in the winter, as some die from starvation or exposure.

The intrigue: If more survived than usual, thanks to the mild conditions, we could see an even bigger than usual spring bunny boom.

Reality check: Other common threats to the species — namely predators and cars — were still around.

Yes, but: Two experts told Axios that the lack of snow might have also given bunnies some extra cover from becoming a meal for great horned owls.

  • "A rabbit on top of snow is not camouflaged at all; it sticks out like a sore thumb," Minnesota Department of National Resources wildlife specialist Tim Pharis told Axios.

Zoom out: Other animal populations, including squirrels and wild turkeys, also likely benefited since they could gorge themselves on acorns and other grub without expending energy trekking and searching through deep snow, Pharis said.

On the other hand, species that burrow under the ground and rely on the snow above for insulation and warmth, including voles and amphibians like salamanders and frogs, might have been less likely to make it.

  • We won't know those effects for sure until later this spring, when they would usually emerge.

What we're watching: A bigger backyard bunny population could attract other wildlife — including coyotes — to neighborhoods.

  • "It's going to be a boon for anything that eats rabbits," Loegering said. "So great horned owls and foxes will do really well."
  • Black labs, golden retrievers and other dogs that like to hunt the critters may also be wagging their tails at more run-ins.

Tips for bunny-proofing your backyard garden

The bunny boom is bad for backyard gardeners.

Yes, but: Getting an early start can help keep them at bay.

  • "Now's the time to be thinking about fortifying against rabbits because there certainly will be a an abundant population," Loegering says.

What to try: Loegering offered the following tips for bunny-proofing your backyard.

Clear clutter: They love to nest where there's lots of vegetation or other cover.

  • Clearing or even just monitoring woodpiles, window wells and even the "junk pile in the back of the yard" can keep them at bay.

Build a barrier: A small fence — even 18 inches should work — can keep bunnies out of garden beds. It doesn't have to be costly. Chicken wire is usually fine.

Try repellants: Some that use smells to keep the bunnies at bay are available at most big-box or hardware stores. Just know that they are "not 100% effective," so Loegering recommends starting with a small bottle to test the tactic.

  • "If it works for you, that's fantastic," he said. "And if it doesn't work for you, move on to the next one."

The bottom line: The lack of snow might have saved some shrubs and other tall plants, which rabbits tend to ravage at when the ground is covered.

  • Pharis said his department usually gets a lot of calls about the critters damaging shrubs in the winter months, some standing on hind legs to reach higher branches.
  • "I haven't seen any significant evidence that happened [this year]," he said.

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