Do you ever wonder where all the rabbits go in the winter time? I never seem to see them out in the wild, but I’ve never seen flocks of rabbits migrating like birds do. Maybe they’re just in their holes sleeping the winter away like many other mammals in winter.
Where do wild rabbits go in the winter? Wild rabbits don’t migrate anywhere or hibernate during the winter. They still live in the same places they inhabit during the summer, and their behavior is more or less the same year-round. If you see rabbits less frequently in winter, it is likely because the population has declined, or the rabbits are taking shelter from the cold.
Even in cold climates that get a lot of snow, rabbits are able to live in their home habitats. But that doesn’t mean wintertime is easy for rabbits. They have to learn how to make adjustments to their diet and lifestyle in order to have the best chance of survival.
Do rabbits hibernate?
When animals hibernate, they go into a deep sleep that allows them to conserve energy because there aren’t enough food resources available. The creature’s body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and metabolism slow to incredibly low levels. The animals are able to live off the food and energy that they stored during the period before going into hibernation.
Rabbit anatomy was not designed to function with this kind of slowdown of bodily functions. Any slowdown of a rabbit’s digestive system can easily put a rabbit into a dangerous situation and is often fatal for rabbits. Their constantly moving digestive system combined with their high fiber diet, makes hibernation incompatible with a rabbit’s lifestyle.
Rabbits also cannot function when their body temperature drops to low levels. A normal rabbit body temperature is between 101.3 and 104ºF. They enter into the beginning stages of hypothermia when their body temperature falls to 100.4ºF. Rabbit bodies are not capable of regulating themselves at the low temperatures that would be required to maintain hibernation.
Do rabbits Migrate?
Migration occurs when animals move a long distance from their home location on an annual or seasonal basis. This can happen when birds fly south for the winter, or when salmon migrate to the ocean annually. There are even many species of mammals that make long seasonal migrations for better grazing. Rabbits, however, are not among these migrating groups of animals.
Instead, rabbits will usually spend their entire lives living in the same place. They will claim a territory of a few acres and won’t travel much beyond this point. During mating season, the rabbit’s territory may expand up to around 10 acres, but there is no mass migration among species of rabbit.
How do rabbits survive in the winter?
Since rabbits stay in the same place all year round, they have evolved to make physical and behavioral adjustments that help them survive through the changing seasons. These changes will include adjustments to the rabbit’s diet and energy levels throughout the winter. They also go through some physiological changes that help rabbits stay warm while the weather gets colder.
What do rabbits eat?
Normally, a wild rabbit’s main food supply will be the various leafy plants and grasses they find in their natural habitat. For most of the year, this foliage can be found in abundance, making it easy for a rabbit to find the resources they need to stay full and energized.
In the winter, however, most of the vegetation that make up a rabbit’s preferred food supply are scarce. Plants and flowers will wither and die until the spring renewal. Any surviving plants are often covered by a layer of snow. Instead wild rabbits have to resort to a much rougher diet.
They will eat bark off of trees, twigs off of bushes, or munch on pine cones that are left on the ground. Roots that they dig up or needles from evergreen trees are also a main source of food for wild rabbits in the winter. For the most part, whatever foliage they can find becomes fair game when vegetation and food resources become scarce.
Where do rabbits stay?
Most species of rabbit, including wild European rabbits (the same species as our pet rabbits) will hide out in their underground network of tunnels during the winter. They’ll only leave the safety of their tunnels when they need to go scavenging for food.
Cottontail rabbits, however, do not dig or live in tunnels like other species of rabbits. These are the rabbits that you will find in the wild in most areas in North America. Instead they tend to be solitary surface dwellers that take refuge in abandoned dens, shallow holes, or under bushes. As the foliage becomes more sparse, these rabbits need to be more resourceful in the places they take shelter. Otherwise they will be easily found by roaming predators.
What other adaptations help a rabbit survive?
Rabbits are also able to survive the winter by growing a thick winter coat to insulate them from the cold weather. They go through a period of seasonal shedding (which can be the bane of all rabbit caretakers), which allows them to alternate between a thin summer coat, and a full-furred, fluffy coat for the colder months.
Most of the time the rabbit’s food consumption will also increase as the summer comes to a close. This will help them form a layer of fat around their body. It will give them further insulation as the winter begins, and it will provide the rabbit with an emergency source of energy if they need it.
Wild rabbits are also more likely to be less active in winter to conserve more energy. When they are not using their limited energy to go and find more food, rabbits will often fluff up into a little ball and rest. In this time when food resources are limited, rabbits need to make the most of what they can find and avoid expending more energy than they take in.
What makes winter difficult for rabbits?
Despite the many ways wild rabbits adapt to survive the winter, it’s still a very difficult time for them. The rabbit population will naturally decline dramatically throughout the winter. It’s estimated that the winter survival rate of wild rabbits is only around 30%.
There are a number of reasons for this massive decline in rabbits through the winter:
- Lack of food resources. With the scarcity of winter, there are not enough resources to go around. No matter how resourceful rabbits get by adjusting their diet, sometimes there simply isn’t enough to eat.
- It’s easier for predators to find them. During the spring and summer, the foliage gives rabbits a lot of places to hide. Unfortunately, in the winter all of these hiding places disappear, making rabbits more vulnerable to roaming predators.
- Their fur coat isn’t fully insulated. Rabbits can do well in very cold temperatures because of their thick coats, but they are not impervious to the cold. Days that are far below freezing, or carry a strong wind chill can quickly lead to hypothermia in rabbits. The cold can also be deadly to any rabbit that manages to get wet since their coats take a long time to dry off.
Cottontails have it even harder than other rabbits. Since these are the only species’ of rabbits that do not burrow underground, they are left much more vulnerable during the winter. Cottontails no longer have their usual resting places. They might be forced to rest with very little cover, making them easy prey for the hungry predators who are also dealing with winter scarcity.
How can you help wild rabbits in the winter?
It’s kind of you to think about rabbits during the winter, but for wild animals it is best to let nature take its course. It’s natural for almost all species of animal to experience a decline in population over cold winter months.
If it just makes you too sad to think about the low winter survival rate of rabbits, then the best thing you can do is to plant trees, bushes, or foliage that will flourish in the winter. This will give rabbits a few more resources to give them a better chance at surviving the cold months.
Rabbits who live in towns or cities often have a higher survival rate than their forest counterparts. There are usually fewer natural predators around human populations (except cars can become a big danger). Human-built structures can also help provide rabbits with shelter and cover even as the foliage gets sparse. You may unknowingly be helping out a rabbit already, who’s taking shelter underneath your front porch.
How to care for a domestic rabbit in the winter?
Domestic rabbits that are kept indoors have very little to worry about in winter. I recommend keeping your rabbit inside, but if you do not, make sure to keep your rabbit’s hutch sheltered from the wind. Keep their water in a bowl and replace it frequently, and provide your rabbit with a lot of extra insulation and bedding.
How to know if your rabbit has hypothermia?
When a rabbit is developing hypothermia, their ears and feet will be very cold and start to turn pale. The rabbit will not be moving much, or they will be moving very slowly. Their breathing will be shallow, and their heartbeat will slow down significantly.
- Fidino, Mason. “What Do Rabbits Do in Winter?” Lincoln Park Zoo. December 20, 2013. https://www.lpzoo.org/blog/what-do-rabbits-do-winter.
- “Medical Concerns.” House Rabbit Society, Jul. 10, 2011, rabbit.org/faq-medical-concerns.