Feeding Wild Rabbits, the Do’s and Don’ts


feeding wild rabbits

While some people see wild rabbits as pests that they need to keep out of their garden, many of us actually love seeing rabbits in the yard and worry about their well being. I always get a little sad thinking about wild rabbits in the winter since I know the scarcity of resources available means many won’t make it through to spring. Still, it’s usually best not to feed wild rabbit’s directly, because it will make them wholly dependent on humans for food.

You can help wild rabbits have food resources by planting shrubs and greenery that will live through the winter. This will make more resources available while also working with a wild rabbit’s natural foraging instincts. You can also grow plants year round to give wild rabbits more nutritious options.

Those of you who live in areas where the wild species of rabbits are endangered or threatened may be especially concerned about the wild rabbits in your neighborhood. For example, European Rabbits have been the subject of a couple different very contagious diseases over the past decades, causing their numbers to dwindle. They have recently been categorized as Near Threatened. Other species, such as the New England Cottontail, are also being subject to conservation efforts to help increase the wild rabbit numbers.

What do wild rabbits normally eat?

Rabbits are natural foragers. They will eat just about any kind of plant material they can find. Through most of the year this will consist of grass combined with other leafy plants they can find naturally, such as clover and wildflowers. 

While there are certainly plants and flowers that are poisonous to rabbits, for the most part they have a digestive system that is able to handle plant material better than other, carnivorous animals. This means that wild rabbits are able to eat a wide variety of plants from their surrounding environment to eat more nutrients and stay healthy.

In the winter, when plant life is scarce, wild rabbits need to be a lot more creative in order to survive. The rabbits need to compete for limited resources such as bark, twigs, and evergreen needles from trees and shrubbery that live through the winter. This is always a time of year that is most difficult for rabbits and results in the death of many rabbits who cannot get enough to eat during the winter.

rabbit eating bark
When food is scarce in the winter, rabbits may resort to eating the bark off of bushes or trees.

The natural way to help feed wild rabbits

If you want to feed the wild rabbits in your community, it’s best to give them a natural way to continue foraging for food. If you try to feed wild rabbits directly or simply leave out bowls full of food for them, you run the risk of causing the rabbits to become completely dependent on you for food. It could soften the natural instincts of any rabbits that live nearby, making them less able to survive on their own.

That’s why it’s a better solution to try to find ways to feed wild rabbits by caring for your lawn or planting a garden that is a safe and welcome environment. You can provide the rabbits in your area with a wide variety of plants to eat and a nutritious lawn to graze on. It’s also an excellent idea to think of rabbits in winter and take the time to plant bushes or trees that can give wild rabbits more natural resources to eat in the scarce season.

Lawn care and gardening

The best thing you can do for your lawn and garden to help wild rabbits is to make sure you don’t use any kind of pesticides or fertilizers with dangerous added chemicals. These can end up poisoning rabbits and other animals in the area. Try to treat your yard like an organic garden so that you can keep all the plants safe for wildlife.

You can also allow your garden to grow like a meadow, instead of making it always look pristine. You can let wildflowers grow in your yard, instead of pulling them out like leaves. Dandelions and patches of clover are nutritious for rabbits and excellent for them to eat. Letting your grass grow longer without mowing can also encourage rabbits to come and forage.

Planting herbs and some vegetables, such as carrots and leafy lettuces, are also a great way to help feed wild rabbits in a natural and nutritious way. You just have to accept that the wild rabbits in the neighborhood might eat these plants when they are still growing, before you have a chance to use them.

Plants to feed rabbits in the winter

If you’re thinking about wild rabbits in the winter, you’ll want to provide them with woody and twiggy bushes and shrubbery that they’ll be able to eat. Some good plants include berry bushes, such as raspberry or blackberry plants. Some trees, such as oak, sumac, and dogwood are also good options to give rabbits, especially if they are younger trees. Young trees tend to have softer bark, which is more appetizing to rabbits.

Planting tall evergreens is another option that can be beneficial to rabbits. They can chew on the branches and eat the needles. These trees and bushes also give rabbits places to hide and take cover during the winter. When foliage is more sparse, rabbits have a harder time hiding away from predators, so these trees can give them a little more advantage and have a better chance at surviving the winter.

Water in dry climates

If you live in an area that has a particularly dry climate, or is going through a dry spell, it’s okay to leave out bowls of water for rabbits. To make sure mosquitos don’t nest in the area and bacteria doesn’t start to accumulate in the bowls, you’ll want to replace the water every day or so and occasionally clean out the bowls or water trough completely.

What to avoid doing when feeding wild rabbits

It’s best to help feed wild rabbits by providing food for them naturally. This will prevent them from becoming dependent on you for food. Big piles of food in the yard can also attract other unwanted animals that may be more dangerous or prone to spreading disease (such as raccoons). However, if you want to occasionally scatter some leftover leafy greens in the yard for wild rabbits to eat, there is nothing wrong with that. 

Leftover herbs, strawberry or carrot tops, or the trimmed ends of many different fruits and vegetables are safe for wild rabbits to eat. Instead of tossing these leftovers in the garbage, you put them outside for the rabbits. But try not to make this a daily habit. 

Birdseed 

Most seeds and nuts are not great for a rabbit’s digestion. There are some exceptions, such as sunflower seeds, but for the most part you want to avoid setting these out where wild rabbits can eat them. Even though birdseed is not good for rabbits, they will probably try to eat it anyway if they find it available. Keep the birdseed for the birds and let rabbits eat the leafy plants that are healthy for them.

High sugar foods

Many commercial rabbit treats that you’ll find in the pet store have many colorful fruity parts to them. Most of these are not healthy for rabbits, whether domestic or wild, and are best avoided. This includes treat mixes, as well as the yogurt treats that are widely available. 

Instead if you want to leave some treats around, you can scatter pieces of fruits and vegetables in your yard, such as strawberry or carrot, for the wild rabbits to come across as they are foraging for food. That will keep them from eating a pile of the sweet fruits and vegetables all at one time.

Cooked human leftovers

Most wild rabbits won’t touch cooked food, but it’s best to avoid making it available to them at all. Cooked food, even if it is all plant based, is not good for a rabbit’s digestion. 

Feeding orphaned wild baby rabbits

Most of the time, if you find a baby wild rabbit nest you should just leave it alone. Wild cottontail rabbits, which are most of the species you will find in North America, will leave their young in a nest. They’ll come back to feed the babies once or twice a day. What might appear to be an abandoned nest is probably still being looked after by the mother rabbit.

If you are absolutely certain that the baby rabbits in question are orphaned and the mother is not coming back, then the best action to take is to try to find a wildlife rehabilitation center in your area that would be willing to take the rabbits in. It is very difficult to care for baby rabbits by yourself, and in most cases they won’t survive for very long.

If you cannot find a rehabilitation center that will help you care for and feed these baby rabbits, then the House Rabbit Society has provided some instructions for feeding baby rabbits. 

Sources

  1. Allman, Molly. “How to Make Rabbits Come to Your Yard.” SFGate. December 19, 2018. https://homeguides.sfgate.com/make-rabbits-come-yard-52448.html 
  2. Duggan, Graham. “Rabbits at risk: Some species are among the most endangered mammals on the planet.” CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/features/rabbits-at-risk-some-species-are-among-the-most-endangered-mammals-on-the-p.
  3. Miguel Delibes-Mateos, Steve M. Redpath, Elena Angulo, Pablo Ferreras, Rafael Villafuerte. “Rabbits as a keystone species in southern Europe.” Biological Conservation. Science Direct. June 2007. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320707000572.
  4. “Orphaned Baby Bunnies: Wild and Domestic.” House Rabbit Society. May 12, 2020. https://rabbit.org/faq-orphaned-baby-bunnies.

Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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