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Rabbits are a common pet, pest and prey, but how much do you really know about them? Check out the facts below to see why bunnies are important in Iowa and around the world.
Jump for Joy
When rabbits are happy or excited, they leap into the air, twist and kick their feet. This move is called a binky, and can be observed in both wild and domestic rabbits. Other signs of happiness in rabbits include a gentle teeth-grinding analogous to purring, marking by rubbing scent glands under their chins on things, social grooming and flopping onto one side. Rabbits are capable of making other vocalizations, but tend not to because the noise attracts predators.
Not a Rodent
Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not rodents. They are members of the lagomorph family, whose other members include pikas and hares. Iowa has one rabbit species, the eastern cottontail, and one hare species, the white-tailed jackrabbit, which can occasionally be seen across the northern half of Iowa. Rabbits differ from hares in that their babies are born blind and hairless, whereas baby hares have fur and functional vision. Unlike rodents, these lagomorphs can only breathe through their noses and are exclusively herbivorous.
Worldwide Warrens and an Aussie Oops
Today, rabbit species are found on every continent besides Antarctica, and over half of all the rabbits in the world live in North America. However, rabbits are not native to Australia, but were introduced in the late 18th century by European immigrants for hunting and to make the settlers feel more at home. The species introduced was the European rabbit, which unlike Iowa’s eastern cottontails, tends to live in social colonies, or warrens. Less than a century after their introduction, these European rabbits were recognized as a significant problem—Australia did not have abundant native predators to reduce rabbit populations, and this – combined with their astonishing reproduction rate – meant rabbits were outcompeting native herbivores and decimating crops. The government and citizens tried various methods of extermination with little lasting success. The most famous of these attempts was a biological control measure in which myxoma virus was released into the rabbit population in 1950, causing the population to drop from about 600 million to about 100 million. Unfortunately, resistant rabbits survived, and by the early 1990s the population had rebounded to between 200 and 300 million.
As a prey animal, rabbits pay a lot of attention to their surroundings to avoid predators. One thing that helps is their wide field of vision, which is only interrupted by an approximately 10-degree blind spot in front of their face. If a predator is spotted, social species like European rabbits alert the whole colony by thumping their hind legs on the ground. Individual cottontails simply hold still and try to avoid detection, running away as a last resort. When pursued, these rabbits run at speeds up to 18 mph in a zig-zag circle to make it harder for larger predators (who can’t turn as easily) to catch them, covering up to 15 feet in a single bound. If it is caught, the rabbit can kick and shed large amounts of fur to try and wriggle out of a predator’s grasp. Rabbits also tend to forage at dawn and dusk, when it’s hardest for predators to spot them.
A rabbit’s front teeth, like their nails, never stop growing over the course of their life. This makes it possible for them to continually eat tough foods like grasses, which slowly wear down the teeth over time. If a rabbit does not eat tough food for an extended period, the teeth may become overgrown and cause further health complications. Because grasses are so tough and hard to digest, rabbits will sometimes eat their droppings to process material twice and extract more calories. Rabbits are incapable of vomiting, which probably helps. The dung itself is excellent fertilizer, and the high-nitrogen urine can help lemon trees be more productive.
Grow Up Fast
Rabbits are known the world over for their impressive reproductive abilities. A rabbit is sexually mature at just four months, and females can produce a litter of babies, called kits or kittens, in 30 days. A mother rabbit is fertile again within 24 hours of giving birth, and she may have multiple litters over the course of one breeding season. There is a high risk of reproductive cancers in un-spayed domestic females.
If you happen to find a nest of baby bunnies and don’t see the mother nearby, that doesn’t mean they’ve been abandoned. Mother rabbits only visit their young a few times a day and avoid doing so in daylight to avoid showing predators where their babies are. If you uncover a nest accidentally, replace the dried grass and fur that was covering it and leave the area. The mother will return and care for the young there or move them to another (undiscovered) location. Do not attempt to care for the babies yourself. They have a very low survival rate even with trained wildlife rehabilitators, and some natural selection is to be expected.
Rabbit Season, Duck Season
Don’t worry about dithering around like Elmer, it’s both! For 2016, both small game and the special teal-only hunting seasons are scheduled to start on September 3. Be sure your license is up-to-date before heading out, and refer to the 2016-2017 hunting and trapping regulations for specific dates and more information. If you decide to go out for rabbits, DNR wildlife technician Jim Coffey says to remember they run in big circles when chased, which makes them fun to hunt with dogs.
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