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Pikes/Pines | The great Capitol Hill eastern cottontail mystery of twenty eighteen

Has anyone else noticed the sudden appearance of rabbits on the Hill? Growing up in Seattle, I can’t recall many rabbits sightings. There were a few at Discovery Park, and there was the infamous colony in a rocky warren in Lower Woodland. Other sizable green spaces have rabbits as well, but it always seemed likely that the Hill and the rest of central Seattle wasn’t suitable. Turns out I was wrong.

Feral, domesticated rabbits are not unusual in cities overall. Often people assume they are easy pets, and disown them upon discovering otherwise. They hop about for awhile and I assume, are dispatched by cars or coyotes. But the bunnies we’re seeing aren’t domesticated, they’re eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus), and they’re suddenly everywhere. The real question is why?

Eastern cottontails were first introduced to Washington in the 1930s as a game animal. Western Washington lacked a native lagomorph (the rabbit, hare, and pika family) at low elevation before this. Back then, if you wanted to see a rabbit, you’d have had to travel to Eastern Washington for one of several species or into the mountains to see snowshoe hares.

There may not be an absolute answer as to why the Hill (and the rest of urban Western Washington) seems to have an influx of eastern cottontails. However, we have clue in their biology. Have you ever heard the phrase, “breeding like rabbits?” Rabbits are truly prolific.

The breeding season for a cottontail is from around February to September. Female cottontails are polyestrus, which means they can have multiple litters in a year, in fact, up to seven ( but averaging more like three or four). In said litters, there can be close to twelve kits, though the average is more like five. So, even a moderately fertile mother could have 20 kits in a year. Adding to the mix is the fact that rabbits are reproductively mature after a couple months. Nearly 25% of the young each year are brought forth by juveniles only a few months old, (only a small percentage of them jump right into it though). This adds up quickly.

Knowing that this is a species capable of fast reproduction, I feel like the answer to this riddle isn’t really that rabbits were never here. Maybe they weren’t around in large numbers, and maybe they weren’t on the Hill much or at all. I do doubt they’ve suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I know there’s long been a population between Husky Stadium and the Center for Urban Horticulture at UW. It wouldn’t be that hard for a few rabbits to steal across the Montlake Bridge at night.

Easter Bunny Sighting

Being reproductively capable is advantageous when you live off food sources that are ephemeral. There’s always greens for a rabbit in the Pacific Northwest, but just possibly, this spring was a particularly good season and the rabbits responded. Despite what Cliff Mass says, I don’t think predators are slacking on their jobs either; (on a side note, a friend who is a falconer and regularly hunts rabbits, confirmed that she’s seen a lot more around Western Washington in the past year). Populations ebb and flow, particularly those of small mammals. This may have just been an expansion year. I’ll be curious to see what happens in future years.

What I do know is that the cottontails — being herbivorous, and being introduced — aren’t always welcome visitors. People are protective of their gardens, and for good reason. I always refer to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s, Living with Wildlife website when conflicts occur, because typically there’s plenty to do before lethal action (that being said, introduced herbivores are pretty hard on native flora). And, if you are feeling like rabbits might be a new urban foraging menu item, do yourself a favor and look up tularemia. It just might not be worth it!

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13 thoughts on “Pikes/Pines | The great Capitol Hill eastern cottontail mystery of twenty eighteen

  1. My understanding is they arrived because of one Bunny Foo Foo

    Little bunny Foo Foo
    Hopping through the forest
    Scooping up the field mice
    And boppin’ ’em on the head!
    Down came the good fairy
    And the good fairy said:
    “Little bunny Foo Foo, I don’t wanna see you
    Scooping up the field mice and boppin’ ’em on the head!
    I’m gonna give you three chances,
    Then I’m gonna turn you into a goon!”
    Little bunny Foo Foo!

  2. so stoked

    totally reminds me ov living on oregon coast; cannon beach !!

    between the bunnies & goats.. this is one ov the coolest reasons this place is cool !

    now if I could just see kitties man-ing ther corners like se hawthorne \m/

  3. There are tons of bunnies on the Eastside at many of the larger office parks and green-space campuses in Redmond and Bothell. Canyon Park in Bothell comes to mind specifically. I worked up there in 2006, and at the building I worked in there were so many they had signs asking people “Please Don’t Feed the Rabbits”. Of course everyone does anyway, because who doesn’t love bunnies? :-) I just finished a contract at Microsoft and they’re pretty common on the MS campus too.

  4. Rabbits are an pest and invasive species. Some probably spread disease also. Don’t feed them. They decimate imperiled native plants like camas and triteleia that native insects rely on. Cats, hawks, and coyotes can only control the population so much. Too bad we can’t shoot them with bird shot. It’s very sad that many people profess love for the environment but think its cute that a highly invasive species is here to destroy what’s left of imperiled Western Washington native plant ecosystems. Ignorance is bliss.

      • ikr?!
        like that guy’s all coming with environmental blah blah when the entire world is a garbage dump and us as human as are making it horrible, aahahahaa

        I’d rather see bunnies roamin around than someone shitting on the side ov a building anyday

        ignorance is bliss, AAHAHAHAA

  5. Well if it is cycle it is a long one or we missed some boom years. I do know that tweenty years ago we would come home late from the crock and see them. It added a very surreal ending to the evening for sure. And then no more bunnies.

    This year’s is weird in that I am seeing them more during the day too.

  6. I was running (won’t tell location because I want the rabbits) early in the morning (5am) and seen a rabbit. It made me so happy. I love the rabbits and I know they keep the lawns and flowers trimmed but whatever. There was a colony at green lake and they cut them down via mass killings (made me sad).

    • The Greenlake rabbits were destroying the vegetation at Greenlake, but also starving, because their little isolated section wasn’t enough to sustain their exploding population. Plus, half of them were maimed due to encounters with dogs. It was for the best.

  7. Hmm…I haven’t really noticed any more rabbits on the hill this year than usual. I’ve been seeing them at the Arboretum for the last decade at least. I do love them though so I hope they are here to stay!