The most common species of rabbit in Illinois is the Eastern Cottontail. Cottontails have litters of 1-8 young every 28 days with 3 to 4 litters per year. Babies’ eyes open at 6-8 days and they are weaned at 3 weeks of age. As soon as they are weaned they are considered on their own. At this time they are only 4 to 5 inches long. Their eyes are open and their ears stand straight up. They give the appearance of a miniature adult cottontail.
Cottontail body temperature is 100-103 degrees.
Mothers only return to the nest about 2 times a day, usually at night. You probably will not see her. If you find a nest, leave the bunnies in the nest. Place yarn or a twig on the nest. If the yarn or twig has been moved after 12 to 24 hours, then the mother is tending the nest. You can also check the bunnies to see that they are warm and hydrated; this is another indication that the mother has been to the nest. If a bunny is not cold, is fully furred, eyes open, and not in danger from pets, it has a better chance on its own than with human care.
If you have to chase it, it does not need to be rescued. If it is in danger of pets (not other wild animals as predator-prey reactions are necessary for ecological balance), then place a laundry basket over the nest during the day and secure it with a heavy object. Remove the basket at night so the moher can feed her young and then replace the basket in the morning. Continue this until the cottontails are on their own. Remember to stay away from the nest. Frequent activity near the nest site will cause the mother to abandon her young. If you accidentally removed the young from the nest, they can be returned to the original nest and reunited with the mother as long as they have not been absent for more than 36 hours.
Cottontails are a high stress animal and will die of a heart attack at the least little bit of stress, such as being touched or hearing voices. Do not feed them! Improper food causes diarrhea and death. Put them in a shoebox or similar container (watch out, even little ones can jump and bite). Treat as an injured animal.
Cottontails can carry the tularemia bacteria. This bacteria can cause flu-like symptoms or even pneumonia. To prevent infection, wear light gloves when handling cottontails and then wash your hands with soap and water afterwards.
Are cottontails invading your garden? Try placing a 2-foot high chicken wire fence around the garden. Be sure to either bury the fence 6 to 8 inches underground or drive stakes into the ground to prevent the cottontails from pushing their way underneath. Also try planting onions, garlic, fritillaria or nasturtium around the perimeter. Cottontails do not like the scent of these plants and may be deterred away from the garden.