It’s something you’ve probably seen in your yard or local forest preserve—a litter of eastern cottontail young without an adult rabbit in sight. But what appears to be a group of orphaned baby rabbits is usually evidence of a successful strategy to protect them. To keep potential predators from discovering the nest, female cottontails typically only visit twice a day to nurse, often at night. When they aren’t with the young, they camouflage the shallow nest by covering it with grass and leaves.
So what should you do if you stumble upon one of these nests? Like with other seemingly abandoned or injured wildlife, the answer is almost always: nothing. Do not disturb the nest or move the young, or you may interfere with a process that has allowed this species to thrive in our area for centuries. The best way to help young cottontails survive into adulthood is to scout your yard for nests before letting out pets or mowing the lawn, especially during the height of breeding season from March to May.
Spring and summer always bring an increase in reports of potentially abandoned wildlife. While young animals found without an adult may evoke a great deal of sympathy, they should almost always be left alone. Young are very rarely abandoned by a parent, and sometimes it is a normal part of development for a young animal to be alone.
For more information on what to do when you encounter potentially sick, injured or orphaned wildlife, visit our Wildlife in Distress Page or visit the University of Illinois Extension’s Living with Wildlife in Illinois website.