by Dave Fisher
Every year, I read and listen to writers and sportsmen crying about the lack of rabbits or "the great cottontail disappearance". You know the story: Rabbits are on every lawn and field in the late summer, then disappear when hunting season comes. I'm sort of tired of the story, and yes, I am criticizing writers that frequently write about hunting rabbits, but have not pursued or killed one in years. Writers who never get a briar slashed across their face, or barely know a blue tick from a basset.
I do not ride horses or know much about horses, so I would be the last to write about some new, and strange riding style or some new, unique disease effecting the equine population. Yet, a fishing writer can turn into an expert on rabbits and cottontails, just before the season begins each fall.
As a lot of you know, my entire life revolves around rabbit hunting, and most know I have produced three videos on rabbit hunting, and written books, and hundreds of articles on the subject: But more importantly, I wear out at least two pairs of nylon boots each fall. My face, legs and arms all bear scars of bouts with multiflora rose, and in most years I put in over 60 days rabbit hunting. I have worn out 1000 denier chaps in less than two years. When not hunting, I scout tracks in the snow, run the dogs in new thickets, test new rabbit loads, doctor the hounds or raise a new litter of puppies. Almost every day of the year is spent talking, writing, or dealing with dogs and rabbit hunting in some way. Yet, not one single outdoor writer contacts me for any pertinent information concerning cottontails or the upcoming season forecast.
So, I am here to tell you that the cottontail rabbit is not an endangered species in Pennsylvania, New York (and surrounding states!), nor it will it be soon. Rabbits have simply changed; hunters haven't. Hunters remember walking through a nice, open, hay field and kicking rabbits out of the stubble. Not anymore, that's not going to happen. Why? Those particular rabbits that were foolish enough to sit out there were quickly killed by a hunter or eaten by an opportunistic predator. Even if that trait was passed on to future generations, it did not take very long for it, and that particular strain to be obliterated from the general rabbit population. So, as years passed through the 70s when I was still young, and hunting mostly without a dog, you could slowly see rabbits retreating to heavier, more isolated stretches of brush. They weren't really retreating, but that strain (ones that preferred a much more bushier location) slowly took over the gene pool.
Also, man always thinks he knows more than God, so he brought species of rabbits from other parts of the country into the eastern states to, "bolster the native population". Of course, some of these were incompatible, and fought for the same habitat. Others interbred creating new strains with some very undesirable traits. Just one of these is "nocturnalbility". Simply put, many of our cottontails are now almost totally night creatures. Did you ever go behind your home and see hundreds of rabbit tracks in the snow, but hardly ever see a rabbit? Night bunnies.
These are just a couple examples of how the rabbits have actually changed. Make no mistake about it ... the rabbits I hunt today, are very different from the rabbits that we stomped and kicked out of corn fields when were kids. Now, I wouldn't think about running my dogs in a corn field!
To get a better idea of what a rabbit is like, and how he carries on his day to day life, we must think about him in terms that more of us understand. Most all of us are deer hunters. Think of the rabbit as nothing more than a miniature deer ... there is no better analogy. What is the best cover you can think of for deer? It certainly isn't wide open, big woods. It's thickets, briars, cut-overs laced with almost impenetrable tree tops. Want to improve habitat for deer and rabbits ... simply bring in a chain saw and start dropping trees. Leave the tops and some of the trunks lying around, and in two years in will be a deer and rabbit heaven.
In time, thickets and cut-overs will revert back to young, first stage tree growth. Deer can manage in these areas as cover begins to get waist high, but they shy away from it for bedding areas. Rabbits must leave this cut-over as soon as the ground cover is gone, 10 years or less. And in time, less than 20 years, the area is of very little use to any wildlife. If you drive down the road and see snow cover over an entire wooded hillside, you're looking through older growth trees, with virtually no ground cover. It is a place usually devoid of any rabbits, and very few deer. It is a place I don't want to hunt. You want rabbits, and deer .... bring in a chain saw. Many beagle clubs have certainly recognized this.
One of the most important aspects of understanding our changing rabbits and our ability to get at them should be very obvious, but it seems to escape most of us. You remember when we were kids, and almost every one could simply hunt from the back yard? And in almost every back yard was an old floppy eared beagle, Old Duke. The beagle's expertise and usefulness in chasing a rabbit hasn't diminished one percent, but how many hunters do you know that have any real rabbit dogs today? By now, it should be fairly obvious that rabbits are back in places that are far less accessible to a human. You need Old Duke, but he isn't around much anymore. It's easier for weekend hunters and outdoor writers to complain about the rabbits all disappearing, than it is to keep a dog for 12 months of the year.
I normally have about 10 beagles all the time. Since a beagle only lasts about 10 years, you have to have new ones in training all the time. Which means a few will be experienced hunters, a few rookies, a couple in retirement, and a few pups. This takes a great deal of work and a lot of time and effort (as many of you know!). Most hunters only had Duke and maybe another, as he got older and faded away, he was seldom replaced, and now very few hounds grace the back yards of once rabbit hunters. Most of us that read SPO Magazine have a few good rabbits dogs, but most of the "weekenders" don't.
Jobs, married life, and many other factors have contributed to the loss of hounds in the back yard. Some will say there weren't enough rabbits to justify keeping a dog all year round, but a good beagle will show you more rabbits in one day, than you could kick and stomp up in a week. The rabbit population may be down over-all across many states, but a good beagle or two, will prove to anyone that there are plenty of rabbits out there. The lack of good dogs, and hunters hunting without them, has only contributed to the myth of, "the great rabbit disappearance".
The other major factor bolstering the Houdini effect that the cottontail has displayed is the number one problem effecting all wildlife everywhere ... habitat destruction. Along with habitat destruction is the fact that many rabbits are still there in certain areas, but a hunter can't get at them anymore. Stick a new house in the middle of a 10 acre thicket, and you have effectively finished it for almost any type of hunting, especially with a rifle or shotgun. Many communities are struggling to deal with their exploding deer population, and have gone to allowing bow hunting in close proximity to houses and malls. It has not worked very well. What's that got to do with rabbits? Remember, a sylvilagus floridanus is nothing more than a miniature deer, and where ever the deer are, you will find him also. But now, you can't get to him, when he's hiding 25 yards behind the new Wal-Mart.
In the course of the last 15 years or so, I have seen hundreds of thickets and wooded areas bulldozed to make way for new malls and highways. This destruction of thick brushy areas has probably had more effect on the rabbit population then any other factor. It chops rabbit habitat into small, isolated blocks, severely limiting the gene pool and creating inbreeding and the potential for a disease to wipe out that particular family of rabbits. It's harder and harder for them to get across highways and huge lighted parking lots to introduce new blood into the clan. The same thing is happening to deer, but on a smaller scale. Deer are simply capable of being a little more mobile.
Those of us that breed dogs, know that an "out-cross" breeding into another strain brings strength and vitality to the line. A good breeder would not continually breed within the same family, but we are squeezing wildlife into smaller and smaller places where there is no choice ... and no influence of new, stronger blood. A rabbit may be small and require less area to live than a deer, but he still needs space, and the ability to roam far enough to find breeding mates outside him family. Habitat destruction and the effect it has on future generations is the rabbits' greatest enemy.
So here we are in a new millennium, and most of us are still rabbit hunting, but I am saddened almost every morning when I open the newspaper and see plans for another new Wal-Mart, McDonald's, or another new four-lane. How many of these things do we need?? All this progress will be the slow death of hunting.
Rabbits are not en endangered species, I've said it many times, but as we start a new century, I am afraid I have no good news about the future of hunting, and rabbit hunting in particular. More neighbors bring more complaints about barking dogs, and I am saddened to see another of my beloved rabbits thickets consumed by the blade of a dozer. Fellows, I wish I had better news for the year 2,000 !!