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You’ve found a rabbit nest in your yard, a park, a schoolyard, or anywhere else. You accidentally dug up the nest, uncovered it, or ran over it with a lawnmower.

Are any of the baby rabbits injured?

A baby rabbit with any of the following signs is injured and needs medical attention:

  • There are obvious wounds or blood on their body
  • They have had contact with a cat – even with no obvious injuries, this is a medical emergency for baby rabbits
  • They are lying on their side and cannot right themself

To keep the baby rabbit(s) safe while you figure out how to help them, put them in a small cardboard box with a soft towel or t-shirt. Even when indoors, or on a warm day babies can get cold or even hypothermic, so give them a heat source:

  • a clean sock filled with dry, uncooked rice, and microwaved for one minute
  • a plastic bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid from the recycling bin filled with hot tap water and wrapped in a tea towel or face cloth (secured to the box so that it does not squish the baby)
  • an electric heating pad set to “LOW” and placed under half of the box.
  • chemical hand warmers (e.g. Hot Paws) that stay warm for up to 8 hours

Do not give them any food or water – right now keeping them warm in a dark and quiet place is more important.

Contact a wildlife rehabilitator right away. Please note that Toronto Wildlife Centre is sometimes at capacity for common baby species, like cottontails. If you have received an email stating that we are full for cottontails, you will need to seek assistance from another wildlife rehabilitator. Please see the OMNRF list of authorized wildlife rehabilitators and/or the map on our website for more information.

If the other babies in the nest are not injured, it may still be possible to reunite them with their mother. Read on.

What’s normal?

We’re used to seeing rabbits in storybooks and in cartoons nesting underground in holes. Eastern cottontail rabbits (the most common species in southern Ontario) don’t nest like that.

Instead, the mother digs a shallow depression (almost like a bowl) in the ground. Usually it’s in the grass, but it might be in a planter or a landscaped area with wood chips. She lines the nest with dry grass, leaves, and fur she pulls from her body. Once the babies are inside, she covers them up with more dried grass and fur. The nest is very well camouflaged and the babies have no scent, helping them to stay undiscovered.

If the nest has been disturbed

Recreate the nest as best you can, in the exact same spot it was originally in. Use any remaining nesting material.  If you need extra you can use some dried grass. Tuck the babies back in the nest and make sure they are covered up with nesting material.

The “string test”

Mother rabbits don’t want to attract predators to their babies, so they mostly leave them on their own, hidden and camouflaged. Mom will come back a few times a day, usually between dusk and dawn, to feed the babies. Feeding may only take 2-3 minutes, so unless you’re watching 24/7 you will probably miss it!

To see if the mother rabbit is coming back to a recreated nest, you can do the “string test”. Take a few pieces of yarn or light cotton string, and place them over the nest in a tic-tac-toe pattern. It can help to take a photo of this, so you can compare it later. Leave the string for 2 feeding periods (or about 18 hours) and then check back. Was the string moved? That’s great — it means mom came back and fed the babies.

If you tried a string test and the string was exactly the same in the morning as you left it, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

Please note that Toronto Wildlife Centre is sometimes at capacity for common baby species, like cottontails. If you have received an email stating that we are full for cottontails, you will need to seek assistance from another wildlife rehabilitator. Please see the OMNRF list of authorized wildlife rehabilitators and/or the map on our website for more information.

Mom came back! Leave the nest alone

If you’ve done a string test and you know the mother rabbit is coming back to feed the babies, leave the nest alone. Cottontail rabbits do very poorly in captivity – their best bet at survival is with their mom.

The good news is that cottontail rabbits grow up really quickly! They start leaving the nest as early as 3 weeks old, and soon disperse from their mother’s territory.

Can I move the nest to a better spot?

No. Rabbits are very specific about the location of their nest. Moving it even a foot or two away will cause the mother to abandon it. Mother rabbits are also one of the only mammals who cannot pick their babies up to move them to a better spot.

I don’t want my pets to hurt the rabbits

A mother cottontail will often choose to nest in some strange places including backyards with dogs, children’s playgrounds and even dog parks! Although we don’t fully understand her rationale for these nesting site choices, we must do our very best to help the babies succeed.

Remember that cottontail rabbits grow up really quickly – they leave the nest at about 3 weeks old.  If the babies have their eyes open they are at least 10 days old, meaning they’ve been in your yard for two weeks without you even noticing! It might be inconvenient, but keeping your dog leashed for those 3 short weeks is the best thing you can do to keep baby rabbits safe and with their mother.

Cottontails are a prey species and are very suspicious of changes to their environment. Keeping dogs away from the nest area is always best, however, if there is no other choice, you can use temporary fencing to cordon off the area with the nest – just make sure there is a big entry hole at ground level big enough for the mother rabbit to get through. You can also place an upside down laundry basket with a rock on top over the nest when pets are outside; you will still need to supervise your pets as they may still be able to access the nest, depending on the size of the pet. Remove the laundry basket as soon as your pet goes back inside.

Cats are also a threat to baby rabbits. If you have a pet cat that goes outdoors, please think about the wildlife – like cottontails – that may lose their life as a result. Consider walking your cat on a leash, building outdoor enclosure (“catio”), or provide direct supervision (e.g. within arm’s reach of the cat) when the cat is outdoors. Please visit our page on keeping cats and wildlife safe for more information.

If it’s a neighbour’s cat, talk to them and explain the situation. Share the above webpage with them, too. They might be willing to alter their behaviours if it means saving a baby rabbit’s life.

Should I leave food or water for the mother rabbit?

No. Leaving food or water near the nest runs the risk of attracting predators like raccoons, skunks, or outdoor cats. If you want to help the mother rabbit out, hold off on mowing the grass for a few weeks.  You could also stop pulling up dandelions. Dandelions are one of a rabbit’s favourite foods!

The nest is in a busy area

It might still be possible to keep the babies with their mother. Talk to someone in charge – school administrators, park stewardship organizations, property managers, etc. They might be willing to cordon off the area with the nest, or put up signage to keep people cautious and away.

MYTH! If you touch a baby rabbit, its mother will not usually abandon it. Rabbits are excellent moms. All they want is their baby back.

If you feel the nest is in a spot where you can’t possibly leave the babies until they’re big enough to leave on their own, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.