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Wild Animals/Cottontail keeps making empty nests


QUESTION: An eastern cottontail has taken up residence in my backyard, frequently spending the entire day on the patio seeking shelter from the sun, or sitting on a window sill in the winter.  She, I assume, builds nests every month or two (including twice in a large pot under a window) which are always empty.  I do not believe that the nests are being attacked by predators has the carefully camouflaged remains undisturbed.  Also, lest you thing I am obsessive, the check the motion activated video surveillance system recordings that cover my backyard.  I am curious as to why a rabbit would build a nest and not use it for babies, as in watching her, she puts quite a bit of effort into building them.

ANSWER: Dear Jeff,

We find that the worst predators of cottontail nests in our area are rats.  They can devastate a nest in a couple of hours (or in a few minutes, if it's more than one rat) and leave absolutely no evidence that the nest was disturbed.  They find the nests by smell, not sight.  So camouflage will not help.

Sometimes it can help deter rats if you place peppermint-oil soaked cottonballs around the nest.  They don't like strong mint smell, and it helps masks the smell of the babies. But a determined rat will eventually get past that defense.

Rats are a terrible scourge to native cottontail populations.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for your answer. I don't think rats or any other predator are the issue, as the nests are not being disturbed, as confirmed by my video survillence system which is triggered my much smaller critters. Instead, I'm sure she is building unused nests.

Hi, Jeff

Oops.  I just answered this as a followup.

False pregnancies are a possibility, though not sure why she would have those unless she is not able to connect with males.

Or she might be infertile.  Or she could be eating her young (unlikely) for some reason, driven by stress or stillbirths.

There are many possibilities.  Catching her in action of giving birth and then immediately inspecting the nest might be the only way to get the real answer.


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Dana Krempels, Ph.D.


I'm an evolutionary biologist with a passion for animals. Ask about natural history, behavior, ecology, evolution. PLEASE NOTE:

If you have found an "orphaned" or injured wild animal or bird:
Please don't waste time asking questions on the internet, as the answers may come too late. DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL, and DO NOT HANDLE IT unless it is in imminent danger. (Many wild "orphans" are not orphans at all!) If you are absolutely sure it is orphaned, keep it warm and quiet, and find a LICENSED WILDLIFE REHABILITATOR HERE. Don't try to raise a baby yourself, or rehabilitate an injured anmal. Many a well-intentioned rescuer will do more harm than good, especially with baby birds and baby rabbits.

Without geographic location, time of day and habitat, I can't help. A clear picture is always best.

It's impossible for me to I.D. an animal call without hearing it myself.

I'm not an expert on comparative strengths of different animals (more complicated than you might think!) nor bite forces.

I refuse to answer "Which of these two animals--X or X--would win in a fight?".

These hypothetical matchups range from impossible (Grizzly Bears and Gorillas don't even occupy the same continent.) to ridiculous (Someone asked me "Who would win a fight between a Great White Shark and a tiger?").

The vast majority of animals--even the fierce and powerful--are not as warlike as Homo sapiens, and it's childish to project our aggressiveness onto them.


I have been the fortunate caregiver to a group of Black-tailed Jackrabbits rescued from the Miami International Airport, and not releasable in this area because they are not native. I also have rehabbed and released Eastern Cottontails, and am in contact with many very experienced wildlife rescuers who regularly handle injured or orphaned rabbits and hares.

House Rabbit Society

Exotic DVM journal

I have a Ph.D. in Biology, with main areas of expertise in evolutionary biology, genetics, botany, and ecology.

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