This time of year, it’s common to find a baby rabbit nest in the yard. Sometimes you uncover the nest while mowing the lawn, and sometimes children or pet dogs manage to find the wild rabbit nest.
If you disturb a baby rabbit nest, place the babies back, cover the nest, and leave it alone. Avoid standing around the nest for too long, so you don’t lead other predators to the nest. If you find any injured bunnies, contact a wildlife rehabilitator to help them recover.
Don’t expect to find a mother rabbit since they usually only visit the nest once or twice a day to avoid leading predators to the babies. However, you can set up a string around the nest to make sure the mother comes back to feed the babies and has not abandoned the nest.
What to do if you disturb a wild rabbit nest
Wild rabbits make nests all over our backyards. If you live in a suburban setting, it’s almost inevitable that you will happen upon a nest of wild rabbits at some point. If the baby rabbits are uninjured, the best thing you can do when you stumble upon one of these nests is to leave it alone.
You likely will not see the mother since they do not stay to nest with the babies. This does not mean that the nest is abandoned. If you take the babies away from the nest, the mother will eventually come back and panic because of her missing babies.
If the nest is disturbed and the babies have fallen or struggled out, gently place them back in the nest and cover it with as much of the original nesting material as you can. Mother rabbits do not abandon their babies if people have touched them, so you don’t have to worry about picking them up and placing them back in the nest.
However, you do want to avoid any unnecessary handling because baby rabbits are very fragile. If you are clumsy or rough with them, you may accidentally injure the babies, so it’s best only to pick them up and gently place them back into the nest.
Also, as cute as the baby rabbits are, you should avoid hanging around the nest for too long. Your presence can attract the attention of other predators in the area or scare away the mother when she’s coming to check on the babies.
You should also avoid leaving out food for the new rabbit family since this can also attract predators. Learn more about safe and natural ways that you can feed wild rabbits in your neighborhood.
Avoid moving the nest to a different location
If at all possible, it’s best to keep the baby rabbits in the original nest position. If you’re worried your dog or children might find the nest, try placing a fence or barrier around it during the day to keep the area off-limits. Remove the barrier at night so that the mother rabbit will be able to find the nest. She will usually return to feed her rabbits in the evening and the early morning.
There is conflicting information available about what to do if a nest is in an inconvenient location and has to be moved. Some wildlife centers claim that you should not move the nest at all because it greatly increases the chances of the mother rabbit abandoning the nest. However, other sources claim it’s okay to move the nest up to 10 feet away.
I recommend not moving the rabbit nest unless you absolutely have to. If you must, keep it as close to the original location as possible so that the mother rabbit can find the area again. You’ll also want to use the fur, grass, and other material from the original nest to make sure it still smells the same to the mother rabbit.
What does a wild rabbit nest look like
Wild rabbit nests are difficult to detect. That’s why it’s so common to accidentally stumble across them and disturb the baby rabbits. The mother rabbits will camouflage the nest in a grassy area by covering it with grass and leaves. You can typically spot them if you notice an area of disturbed grass with some animal fur tucked in around the edges. This is especially common in areas of tall grass, so you may want to take a quick look around your lawn if you haven’t mowed the grass in a while.
They will also often locate their nests in the middle of a yard or lawn. This is because it’s less likely for most predators to accidentally stumble across the nest and harm the babies. Other than household dogs and humans, most predators are wary of open spaces. They won’t travel out into the middle of the yard as often, making them less likely to find the baby rabbit nest.
The peak rabbit mating season is from March to September. This means you will most likely run into a baby rabbit nest anywhere from April to October. Be careful when mowing the lawn and raking leaves to avoid uncovering the nest or injuring the baby bunnies.
Why do rabbits have surface nests? Don’t they dig tunnels?
Wild cottontail rabbits that are native to many regions of North America are not the same species as the burrowing rabbits that are native to Europe. European rabbits dig networks of tunnels as their homes. They dig nests branching off the main tunnel when preparing to have babies. The domestic rabbits we keep as pets are descended from those European rabbits, which is where their digging instincts come in.
However, North American cottontail rabbits are not burrowers. Similar to hares, they are surface dwellers who take shelter under brambles, bushes, and in abandoned nests of other animals. They may dig shallow holes to give themselves some protection. They treat their babies’ nests the same way. Cottontail rabbits will dig small holes in the ground and cover it up with fur, grass, and leaves to keep their babies hidden and protected.
Safety when handling wild rabbits
It’s very rare for rabbits, even wild rabbits, to spread disease to humans. That does not mean it’s impossible. If you need to handle the baby rabbits, it’s best to wear gloves just in case. If not, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after touching the baby rabbits to avoid the chance of contracting anything. Learn more about contagious diseases in rabbits so you can better understand the risk.
If you have pet rabbits at home, you want to be much more careful. While rabbits rarely spread disease to humans, they can easily spread disease among themselves. Be sure to wash and disinfect your hands, and change your clothes before interacting with your own rabbit to avoid inadvertently spreading an illness to your pet rabbits.
What to do if the baby rabbits are injured?
If the baby rabbits are obviously injured, the best thing to do is get in contact with your local Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for advice. The Humane Society has a list of wildlife rehabilitators in the U.S. to help you get in touch with someone who can help. In my experience, wildlife rehabilitators often have their hands full, so they might not be able to take in the baby bunnies. However, they can give you expert advice and point you in the direction of other available resources in your area.
In the meantime, you can take some basic steps to give the baby bunnies the best chance possible.
- Be sure the babies are actually injured. As much as possible, we want to avoid separating baby rabbits from their mother. Don’t assume they are injured unless there is visible blood or a broken limb.
- Keep the baby rabbits warm and safe. Place the babies in a towel-lined box that they can nestle into. Use a warm hot water bottle or a heating pad on the lowest setting and place it next to the rabbits with a towel as a barrier. You don’t want to put it directly next to the rabbit’s skin because it can cause burning.
- Do not attempt to feed the baby rabbits. Initially, you don’t want to try to feed the rabbits on your own. Not only do they have unique nutritional needs (cow’s milk is not suitable for rabbits), but they can also easily become asphyxiated by inhaling the liquid if they are fed improperly. Wait to see if a skilled rehabilitator can take them off your hands, and if not, get advice and use this guide from the House Rabbit Society for more information about feeding baby wild rabbits.
As sad as it is, I have to warn you that most baby rabbits that are injured or otherwise separated from their mothers are not likely to survive. The younger the rabbits are, the less chance they’ll have at surviving. It can be heartbreaking when the rabbits you are trying to nurse to health don’t make it, so I want to make sure you’re prepared for that outcome.
Preventing injury in the future
I know it feels horrible if you accidentally injure a nest of baby rabbits. Sometimes the nests are just too well hidden, and you don’t find them in time. The best thing you can do is take some steps to prevent this kind of accidental injury in the future.
- Check for nests before mowing the lawn or raking. Look around for any areas of the lawn that look a little torn up. The presence of rabbit fur is often a giveaway for the hidden rabbit nest.
- Cover or fence off any nests that you find to protect children and pets. Once you’ve found a nest, keep young children and dogs away so that they will not accidentally injure the babies.
- Keep dogs leashed in the yard for 3 weeks. Babies will grow up enough to leave the nest within about 3 weeks. If you can keep your dog leashed in the yard until they have left the nest, you can avoid accidental injury.
- Avoid using harsh lawn chemicals. Many chemicals used for lawn care are deadly to rabbits, so it’s best to pay attention to any fertilizers you use and avoid chemical pesticides.
Will the mother abandon a disturbed rabbit nest?
If you disturb a wild rabbit nest, you should not expect to see the mother rabbit around. To protect her babies, the mother stays away from the nest for most of the day. This keeps predators from following her or being attracted to her scent since baby rabbits are almost odorless. In most cases, the mother will not abandon a disturbed nest.
It is also very uncommon to see a mother rabbit return to the nest. They typically only go back to feed their babies for a few minutes twice a day, around dusk and dawn. They are very sneaky and easy to miss, so don’t assume the bunnies are orphaned or abandoned just because you never see the mother.
If you’re worried that the mother is not coming back to the nest, there are a couple of ways you can check:
- Place string in a grid over the nest. Loosely place string (or twigs and sticks) in a grid overtop of the hidden nest. If the mother rabbit comes back, she will disturb the grid pattern. If it’s moved in the morning, you’ll know the mother rabbit has been there.
- Place a ring of baking powder around the nest. Similarly, you can pour a thick ring of baking powder or corn starch in a circle around the nest. If the circle has been scattered in the morning, you’ll know the mother has been to visit.
- Check the baby rabbits after sunrise. The other way you can check on the babies is by looking at their tummies. After the mother feeds the babies, the stomach will look plump and round, whereas they will look sunken if they have not been fed.
Wait at least 24-48 hours before deciding the babies have been orphaned or abandoned. Sometimes the mother will only come back once a day. It’s best to err on the side of leaving them be in this case because baby rabbits have a much better chance of surviving if left with their mothers than trying to be nursed to health by humans.
If you believe the babies are orphaned, the best thing to do is contact your local wildlife rehabilitation center.
How to feed orphaned or injured baby rabbits
I have minimal experience in nursing wild baby rabbits to health or helping orphaned rabbits. When I was a teenager, I helped my mother successfully nurse an orphaned baby rabbit back to health. We had to syringe feed the baby some kitten formula twice a day and were constantly worried we’d do it wrong and accidentally hurt the baby. While in our case, everything turned out okay, and the baby rabbit survived, people are more often faced with the opposite outcome.
The best thing you can do is to try to get into contact with a wildlife rehabber. However, if you have no choice but to feed the baby rabbits yourself, the House Rabbit Society provides instructions for what kind of formula to get and how much to feed the rabbit.
- “I Disturbed a Nest of Baby Rabbits.” Toronto Wildlife Centre. https://www.torontowildlifecentre.com/wildlife-emergency-rescue-hotline/how-to-help-orphaned-baby-wild-animals/how-to-help-orphaned-baby-rabbits/nest-of-baby-rabbits-disturbed.
- “How to Find a Wildlife Rehabilitator.” The Humane Society. https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/how-find-wildlife-rehabilitator.
- “Orphaned Baby Bunnies: Wild and Domestic.” House Rabbit Society. May 12, 2020. https://rabbit.org/faq-orphaned-baby-bunnies.
- “What to Do About Wild Rabbits.” The Humane Society. https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/what-do-about-wild-rabbits.