Step 1: Do the String Test to see if the mother rabbit is coming back to the nest

Because mother rabbits only visit their young a few times a day to feed them, mostly at dawn and dusk, it can be difficult to tell whether baby rabbits are actually orphaned. However, a simple test can tell you if the babies are still being cared for by their mother. Place two pieces of string in an “X” formation on top of the nest covering. Make sure that the centre of the X is in the middle of the nest, and the ends of the string overlap the edges of the nest by 6 inches on every side.

String Test

String crossed on top of a cottontail rabbit nest

Step 2: Keep the rabbit nest undisturbed

Do not place any other materials or items around the nest area. It is important to leave the nest as undisturbed as possible, because mother rabbits are very easily stressed and are sensitive to new things. Therefore, do not put anything over the nest to shelter it, leave food items nearby, or make any other additions to the nest site.

Step 3: Leave the rabbit nest alone overnight

Leave the string in place overnight and keep people and pets away from the area. Resist the urge to check on the nest—this will only make the mother rabbit more nervous! If you do the test before dark, this gives the mother two opportunities to feed her babies: dusk and dawn.

Step 4: Check the rabbit nest for signs that the mother has returned

Check on the nest the following morning. If the mother has returned to the nest by then, she will have moved and replaced the nest covering and the string’s X pattern will have been disturbed. If this is the case, great! Remove the string and leave the nest completely alone. Baby rabbits have the best chance of survival in their mother’s care, and will be ready to leave the nest about three weeks after birth.

If the string is in exactly the same place the next morning, the mother has not returned and the babies are likely orphaned. At this point you should contain the babies and contact a wildlife rehabilitator.