What Do Rabbits Do in Winter?

Lincoln Park Zoo is home to a wide array of species spanning several taxa, from armies of Madagascar hissing cockroaches to our baby eastern black rhinoceros, King. However, species diversity at zoos goes beyond the wildlife on exhibit; many native and non-native species live within the landscaped vegetation or water features around a zoo, in animal exhibits or in the buildings on grounds.

One such species is the eastern cottontail rabbit (or Sylvilagus floridanus, if binomial nomenclature is your thing). For the last four winters we have been estimating how many rabbits are located on zoo grounds and whether their survival rate differs from rabbits in more natural areas. You see, urban areas can provide additional food and water sources, den sites and possibly a lower abundance of natural predators. For city rabbits this could mean an increase in their over-winter survival rates and allow for densities to be much greater than their rural counterparts.

An eastern cottontail rabbit at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo

An eastern cottontail rabbit at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Rabbits, as well as many other mammals in seasonal environments, are partially limited by over-winter mortality. During the winter much of the foliage they snack on during the warmer months is either gone or covered in snow.

So what do they eat? Much to the chagrin of our hard-working grounds staff, cottontail rabbits often resort to eating bark from shrubs, young trees and other woody perennial plants in order to survive. Furthermore, the eastern cottontail doesn’t dig its own burrow like other rabbit species and either relies on burrows created by other species (including humans) or huddles up underneath woody vegetation to wait out severe weather.

Your chances at seeing a rabbit over the winter are greater at dawn or dusk when the weather is milder. Rabbits will take advantage of times like this to forage as much as possible. However, if you are around Lincoln Park Zoo and take a second to scan the vegetation, you should be able to see a rabbit or two this winter.

A camera trap photo shows some of the many rabbits that make their home at Lincoln Park Zoo.

A camera trap photo shows some of the many rabbits that make their home at Lincoln Park Zoo.

So what have we found so far during our study of this little herbivore? First and foremost, there are LOTS of rabbits on zoo grounds and at much greater densities than in natural areas. On average, there are 139 rabbits here during the winter months, which results in a density of about 12 rabbits per hectare (10,000 square meters). In a 1942 study conducted in Michigan, rabbit densities were 0.08–0.35 rabbits per hectare. If we compare the two, rabbit densities at the zoo are 34 times greater!

However, overwinter survival rates for our rabbits were no different than reported values of rabbits from other scientific studies (right around 30%). It may be that rabbits born every spring have a much higher survival rate because of abundant resources and fewer predators, which could result in the greater densities that we see. When the winter rolls around the now abundant rabbits are limited by food availability, and rabbit numbers decline until spring comes around again.

We’re not done with rabbits yet, though. While I may be hanging up my Timothy Hay and catch-and-release box traps for this season, we are starting a new project this winter to determine exactly how rabbits perceive the zoo landscape. A scientific theory called “optimal foraging theory” predicts that a species will no longer forage in an area when its costs (things like risk of predation, energy costs and missed opportunities from looking for food elsewhere) exceed the reward gained from foraging. Thus, rabbits will forage longer in places where they feel safe and forage for shorter periods in places where they do not.

A rabbit is released as part of the study.

A rabbit is released as part of the study.

This perceived safety can easily be estimated by measuring the density of food remaining after a rabbit moves on from an area: the Giving-Up Density. By using trays with a small amount of food, placed throughout the zoo, we will be able to determine where rabbits feel most comfortable and where they are the most fearful. In regards to the latter, my money is on the red wolf exhibit.

Once we’re done, we’ll be able to see the zoo through the eyes of a rabbit, which will help us figure out how to keep them from destroying all our beautiful landscaping. If you swing by the zoo from January to March, you may be able to see our food patches in action!

Mason Fidino

Mason Fidino is coordinator of wildlife management in Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute.  

Mason Fidino is coordinator of wildlife management in Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute.

Twitter icon   Follow the Urban Wildlife Institute on Twitter.



Thanks for "What Do Rabbits Do In Winter?"

Great little blog post. Our classic brick courtyard condo building just off the lake on Pratt has had a healthy family (or 2, or 3?) of rabbits for the past couple of years. I've actually seen quite a bit of activity from them this winter and was wondering a bit about that...you answered a lot of of my wondering! I had participated in some of the camera trap project work for LPZ this past year and there are quite a few of our building rabbits posted on Project Noah.

Glad You Enjoyed It

Fun to hear the post aligns with your own experience. Thanks for sharing!

i love this website so much.

i love this website so much.


Found this article very interesting. I have a wild rabbit and the odd time her friend that spend most of her night on our front lawn. I put food out for her every night. I can walk right past her and she stays put. She feels safe here. Our Yorkies are trained not to bark at her so she doesn't get scared. It will be a sad day when she is gone.

Rabbit populations this summer 2015

Thank you for your research on rabbits in the city. I've lived here for decades and it seems the population exploded in the last 5 years but I've not seen a single rabbit this summer in our neighborhood or anywhere else. Has the population collapsed in general or just on our block?

Rabbits in the City

We asked Mason, and he says, "Rabbits are doing fine throughout the city, but there could possibly be times when parts of Chicago could experience what ecologists call local extinctions. This could happen due to things like disease, increased predation (or risk of predation) or loss of food sources. While it is not an indicator for the rest of the city, Lincoln Park is currently ‘hopping’ with rabbits. If this is the case, then I would expect rabbits to recolonize the area over time. 

This has been a really wet season spring as well, so it could be that rabbits are either hiding in vegetation or don’t need to go to people yards as often to acquire food."

Tularemia research?

Will your research include the role of tularemia in rabbit populations? Also, I have heard that hawks will not hunt rabbits with tularemia. Have you heard of this?

Re: Tularemia research?

Betty, we shared your question with Mason, and he replied:

“I’ve not heard of hawks avoiding rabbits with tularemia, but in all likelihood this is not the case. In order for that to happen, there would need to be enough of a selective pressure from this for hawks to learn to avoid rabbits with tularemia, and as many birds of prey have very generalist diets they probably do not encounter sick rabbits enough for them to learn. Disease ecology is a big and exciting field, but not something I am personally that knowledgeable of, so chances are that we will not include a disease component in our study of rabbit populations. We do have a disease ecologist on staff though, so who knows!”


Creating Rabbit Shelter for Winter

I have a wild cotton tail that I feed on a regular basis. It will even eat dried cranberries out of my hand. As Donna mentioned above I have a yorkie as well which I've trained not to bother the rabbit. Many times they are both in the yard at the same time. I am wanting to provide shelter for the rabbit during the winter. I have a back deck with a ramp rather than stairs. I want to provide it shelter underneath the ramp. This is one of the places it goes for shelter when it gets spooked. Do you have any suggestions on the type of shelter I should put together? I thought about a small animal carrier with straw/hay on the inside.

Re: Rabbit Shelter

We asked Ecological Analyst Mason Fidino, and he says, "Over the winter, cottontail rabbits tend to look for cover to provide shelter from harsh winds  and weather. As long as the area underneath the ramp does not get flooded while it rains or when snow melts, anything you put there could potentially work. However, it would be best to let wild animals be wild!”

urban rabbits feeding

Great website. Gives me hope that I can help the rabbits living under my garage in a burrow made by a ground hog survive the winter. I live in a large urban city across the street from a wooded area. I so enjoy seeing them peacefully sitting in the yard. I bought some Timothy Hay but they haven't touched it. Perhaps I am putting it out wrong. I don't want to disrupt their natural diet just treat them a little for treating me. What do you suggest for them and is dusk or dawn better for feeding. Thank you

Re: urban rabbits feeding

Linda, we appreciate--and share--the love for rabbits, but our general advice is to let wild animals be wild!

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <img> <div>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may insert videos with [video:URL]

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.