Bunnies Are Homebodies

Each rabbit is tagged with a unique number. The ear tag on the left is red, indicating the rabbit was seen in 2012. Photo by Marian Vernon.

Eastern cottontail rabbits are year-round denizens of Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo and its surroundings. In the Urban Wildlife Institute, we’re interested in understanding how animals in urban areas like Chicago can survive and sometimes even thrive (as is true of cottontail rabbits). Toward this end, since January 2010 we’ve been conducting a long-term study of cottontail rabbits around Lincoln Park Zoo.

One aspect of the study involves applying ear tags to a subset of rabbits in the local population. The color of the tag indicates the rabbit’s year of capture. Each tag has a unique number so the rabbits are individually identifiable. From this, we estimate how many rabbits make their home at Lincoln Park Zoo and track changes in their population size over time.

An interesting outcome of this study is that we get a sense of the home range of these rabbits. In some cases we’ve encountered the same rabbits over multiple years. We frequently caught the same individual rabbit at the same exact location, despite having traps distributed all over the zoo.

Over the course of the study we sampled locations all over the zoo's main grounds.

Three rabbits were caught in 2010 and again in 2012. These rabbits were found at locations that differed by only 50, 30 and 80 meters (moving from top to bottom of the map).

As you can see, rabbits were in nearly the same locations in 2010 and 2012, despite the elapsed time and the fact that we sampled all across the zoo. Rabbits typically live less than one year, so these three rabbits have already exceeded the life expectancy for the species.

We don’t know where the rabbits go when we aren’t sampling. And there are a handful of exceptions to the rule where we’ve trapped the same rabbit at opposites sides of the zoo. But for the most part these rabbits seem to have very localized movements. Just imagine living your entire life within 100 square meters!

The population estimate for 2012 is a work in progress. Stay tuned for more information on this study!

Vicky Hunt


Study is a great idea! I have a pet rabbit, and I always enjoy seeing the cottontail rabbits around the zoo. It seems to me there is at least one rabbit per other animal in each enclosure!

Looking forward to more on this study. BTW...I have seen lots of wood ducks since your story about them. Thanks!

I'd love to know what your gardeners have learned about which decorative plants and flowers are more rabbit-resistant. I seem to have a resident group that does a lot of damage--especially in early spring when the food supply seems to be more limited.

Donna, we asked our expert gardeners, and they shared the following:

Some of the best flowering plants we have found to be rabbit-proof or virtually so:

Agastache foeniculum, anise hyssop
Amsonia tabernaemontana, blue star
Anemone hybrid, Japanese anemone
Asarum canadense, wild ginger
Bergenia cordifolia, pigsqueak
Bouteloua curtipendula, sideoats grama
Brunnera macrophylla, Siberian bugloss
Buddleia davidii, butterfly bush (can be invasive—‘Blue Chip’ is sterile)
Corylus cornuta, beaked hazelnut
Geranium maculatum, spotted geranium (an early bloomer)
Heuchera americana, coral bells
Hibiscus moscheutos, rose mallow
Lychnis chalcedonica, Maltese cross
Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot
Narcissus spp., daffodils
Paeonia lactiflora, garden peony
Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian sage
Phlox paniculata, summer phlox
Physocarpus opulifolius, ninebark
Polygonatum biflorum, Solomon’s seal
Rudbeckia laciniata, cutleaf coneflower
Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem
Scilla siberica, Siberian squill
Tiarella cordifolia, foamflower
Tradescantia ohiensis, bluejacket
Viola cucullata, blue marsh violet

Although non-flowering, most ferns also seem to be rabbit-resistant. Be sure to research these plant names before purchasing to see if they are appropriate for the conditions in your yard. Happy gardening!

I was interested in your research because I remember one zoo visit during colder months where I remember seeing more rabbits hanging out in the exhibit areas than the actual animals that were supposed to be on display (they were hiding inside where it was warm).

I see rabbits all the time in my yard. Is there anyone studying the rabbits that are in Chicago (not just the zoo grounds)?

I've even seen them leaping across parking lots in the south loop.

Mani, Urban Wildlife Institute Director Seth Magle, Ph.D., says, "UWI is monitoring the biodiversity of wildlife throughout Chicago, not just at the zoo, and that includes rabbits! Motion-triggered cameras are used to assess hotspots of rabbit activity, and images from the cameras are studied to determine whether rabbits in different parts of the city have different behavioral patterns."

You can learn more about the Urban Wildlife Biodiversity Monitoring project at http://www.lpzoo.org/conservation-science/projects/urban-wildlife-biodiv...

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