Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Rabbit population explodes in Washington area neighborhoods

Bunnies are booming in the Washington area.

To foxes’ delight and gardeners’ dismay, the rabbit population has exploded in many neighborhoods in the past two to three years. The cute cottontails have become a daily sight on lawns that saw them rarely, if ever, in the past.

Dramatic jumps in the number of long-eared lagomorphs have been reported in southern Montgomery County, Northwest D.C., Alexandria and Arlington.

“In our region, there definitely appears to be a nice, big spike in the number of cottontail rabbits. It may not be in every single neighborhood, but it probably is in a good majority of them,” said Alonso Abugattas, Arlington County Natural Resources manager.

There’s no cause for alarm. Rabbits typically don’t carry diseases or otherwise create inconvenience for humans.

One exception is dog owners, who risk dislocated shoulders when a leashed canine bolts after a lapin. Another is gardeners — remember Mr. McGregor? — who are hunting desperately for fencing or repellants to protect their vegetables and ornamental plants.

Karen Elkins of Chevy Chase (the Maryland part) said that groups of rabbits have systematically denuded evergreen shrubs and flowering plants in her backyard. She had never seen rabbits in her neighborhood until last year, and this year the number has mushroomed.

“We’ve been fighting the battle of the bunnies all spring,” said Elkins, a government scientist. “They’ve been on every corner. You’d walk the dogs in the morning, and they’d drive the dogs crazy.”

The rabbit renaissance won’t last because it creates a sumptuous buffet for local predators such as foxes, hawks and owls.

“Just about everything likes to eat rabbits,” Abugattas said. “Their numbers will likely be controlled again. It’s a matter of it just being an upcycle now for them.”

On the other hand, rabbits typically remain in a neighborhood once they’ve established themselves. Communities hosting rabbits for the first time should thus expect to see them indefinitely, albeit in smaller numbers.

Why is the surge happening now? I couldn’t find anyone with a definitive explanation, but local wildlife experts pointed to four likely causes:

First, abundant rain has produced plenty of lush shrubbery and other ground cover that help conceal the rabbits and their nests. They have more opportunity to sneak around without becoming lunch.

Second, the red fox population has diminished in some communities. This might have occurred because many are getting mange, an affliction caused by mites, which can hamper their hunting.

In Chevy Chase, residents think the surge in rabbits followed the disappearance of a skulk of foxes that had been living on the wooded property of a national 4-H center.

Third, new construction that gobbles up undeveloped woodlands tends to drive more animals to learn to live in leafy residential areas.

Finally, and this is my favorite explanation, some attribute the change to the renewed popularity of home vegetable gardens. (Cue conservatives to blame Michelle Obama for promoting the trend.)

“It’s sort of tied to the ‘grown locally’ movement,” said John Adcock Jr. of Adcock’s Trapping Service in College Park. “There are so many more people putting nice, little gardens in their backyard, and it’s difficult to put in effective barriers. The rabbits are getting just as much food from them as the humans.”

Adcock said that he spends hours every week trying to discourage potential customers from hiring him to trap rabbits. He tells them that using traps is risky for neighbors’ pets or children and that fighting rabbits is a lost cause.

“They’re so prolific, there’s no use thinning them out. You’ll just have to do it again next year,” he said.

Adcock and his nearly 20 employees stay busy instead removing squirrels and raccoons from people’s homes — the company’s main source of income.

Personally, I welcome the rabbits. They add to the natural diversity of residential neighborhoods like mine, in Bethesda, where the rabbits are on track to outnumber the squirrels.

Robin Schindler, wildlife specialist at the Washington Humane Society, said that she fields a lot of calls from people who think their environment should be “sanitized” just because they live in a city. She said that they need to accept that wildlife has learned to live side by side with us.

“A lot of animals have adapted,” Schindler said. “They’re just part of the landscape.”

At least until the foxes show up.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

 
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