STAMFORD — The backyard grass was high when Glenn Harper mowed it, so he was not surprised, after he finished, to find a clump.
Harper assumed that a glob of grass cuttings had fallen from the mower blades.
But when he bent to pick it up, it moved.
“I lifted away some of the dried grass and I saw a bunch of baby bunnies,” the Stamford man said.
Newborns. Eyes closed. Rounded ears facing backwards. Barely any fur.
“I thought, ‘The mama rabbit had all this tall grass to give cover to her nest and now I have uncovered it,’” Harper said. “My concern was that, because I mowed everything, it wasn’t a good nest anymore, and the mama rabbit would abandon it.”
She wouldn’t, Harper learned after some online research turned up an article in Scientific American magazine. It’s not likely a mother will abandon her nest unless something happens to her, the article said.
“It said to put sprigs in a crisscross pattern across the nest, and go back later to see if the pattern was disturbed. That would mean the mama was there,” Harper said. “I did that and saw that it got messed up, and then in the morning I saw the mama at the nest.”
Mother rabbits know something humans don’t – her babies make no noise and have no scent, and are less likely to attract predators if they stay in the nest, said Deborah Galle, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and board member of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
“Wild moms are good moms,” Galle said. “If she is alive and able to get to her babies, she will. If something spooks her, she may hang back because she doesn’t want to bring predators to the nest. But even if she is spooked, she will keep trying.”
Rabbits frighten easily because they are a prey species, Galle said. In the wild, animals with eyes on the side of the head, like rabbits, are prey. Animals with eyes in front, like coyotes, are predators.
“Everything eats rabbits, so they are very, very skittish,” Galle said. “They are a major food source in the wild.”
It’s why rabbits reproduce so quickly, she said. Females give birth from March to September to litters that range from two to 10 bunnies. The gestation period is 30 days, so the female can have a litter every couple of months.
She cares for the babies for two to three weeks, Galle said, and then they are on their own.
“At that point they have fur and look like full-fledged rabbits, only mini – about the size of a tennis ball,” Galle said. “People see them and think they need help, but they don’t. Unless they are injured, they are better off on their own.”
Well-meaning humans often harm bunnies, Galle said, which is why the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association has a website to explain the ways of the rabbit and other wild animals.
The worst thing humans do is take newborns from a nest, Galle said. Usually it’s because they don’t see the mother, but she’s there, Galle said.
“She comes to nurse the babies at dusk and at dawn,” Galle said. “She has her own kind of GPS locator, so if the topography changes and the nest area looks really different, she might be off. That’s why you shouldn’t move the nest or put anything on top of it.”
The second worst thing is to feed bunnies, she said.
“Babies have to be hydrated close to 100 percent when they’re fed, otherwise they can’t digest. A rabbit’s temperature is 102 degrees, and if they are fed when they aren’t warm enough, they will die, because they can’t metabolize the food,” Galle said. “If you don’t stimulate them to urinate, as the mom does, the bladder can rupture and the baby must be euthanized. People use droppers to feed them milk, but the fluid goes into their lungs and kills them.”
At their fuzzy tennis ball stage, bunnies don’t yet know enough to run, Galle said.
“They’ll freeze and pray you don’t see them,” Galle said. “If they are in the street or somewhere there is danger, push them under a bush, then leave them alone.”
Rabbits are so fearful of predators that they will die of fright, Galle said.
“When you are treating a raccoon or a squirrel, you can hold them tightly, but you can’t do that with rabbits. To them it’s like being in a predator’s grip. They’re terrified,” Galle said. “You can’t confine them. You give them the autonomy or control that makes them feel secure.”
Wildlife rehabilitators like Galle are state-appointed and strictly volunteer – they are not paid for their work or reimbursed for food and supplies they use to treat animals before releasing them back into the wild. To be licensed, they must complete an apprenticeship and training, and pass an exam.
Each rehabilitator works with a veterinarian.
Many people want to help but don’t know how, Galle said. Members of her association put on their website a list of rehabilitators who may be able to help when people find sick or injured animals.
“You can leave us a message that you found a baby rabbit or squirrel or bird or other animal, along with your name and phone number and the town where you live, and we will post your request to rehabilitators who live nearby,” Galle said.
Check the website for information on co-existing with wild animals, she said. One tip is to walk your lawn before you mow to check for rabbits’ nests.
“I have had grown men call me in tears because they killed four baby rabbits with a lawnmower,” Galle said.
Harper said he’s seen plenty of rabbits in his Stamford yard, but never a nest. He’s glad the bunnies are OK.
“It’s somewhat secure back there, and the mama seems to be taking good care of them,” he said.