The appetite of a rabbit can cause problems every season of the year. Rabbits eat flowers and vegetables in spring and summer. In fall and winter, they damage and kill valuable woody plants. Rabbit damage can be identified by the characteristic appearance of gnawing on older woody growth and the clean-cut, 45-degree angled clipping of young stems. Distinctive round droppings in the immediate area are a good sign of their presence too. Rabbit damage can be distinguished from deer damage in two ways. The first way is by height of the damage. Rabbits can only reach as high as they can stand plus any height of the snow. Typically damage is under 3 feet high. Deer can browse as high as 6 feet. Second, deer tear plants so edges of branches will NOT be cleanly cut as it would be when a rabbit bites.
Rabbits will devour a wide variety of flowers. The one most commonly damaged is the tulip; they especially like the first shoots that appear in early spring. The proverbial carrot certainly is not the only vegetable that cottontails eat. Anyone who has had a row of peas, beans, or beets pruned to ground level knows how rabbits like these plants. Only a few crops—corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, and some peppers—seem to be immune from
Equally annoying, and much more serious, is the damage rabbits do to woody plants by gnawing bark or clipping off branches, stems, and buds. In winter in northern states, when the ground is covered with snow for long periods, rabbits often severely damage expensive home landscape plants, orchards, forest plantations, and park trees and shrubs. Some young plants are clipped off at snow height, and large trees and shrubs may be completely girdled. When the latter happens, only sprouting from beneath the damage or a delicate bridge graft around the damage will save the plant.
A rabbit’s tastes in food can vary considerably by region and season. In general, cottontails seem to prefer plants of the rose family. Apple trees, black and red raspberries, and blackberries are the most frequently damaged food-producing woody plants, although cherry, plum, and nut trees are also damaged.
Among shade and ornamental trees, the hardest hit are mountain ash, basswood, red maple, sugar maple, honey locust, ironwood, red and white oak, and willow. Sumac, rose, Japanese barberry, dogwood, and some woody members of the pea family are among the shrubs damaged.
Evergreens seem to be more susceptible to rabbit damage in some areas than in others. Young trees may be clipped off, and older trees may be deformed or killed.
The character of the bark on woody plants also influences rabbit browsing. Most young trees have smooth, thin bark with green food material just beneath it. Such bark provides an easy-to-get food source for rabbits. The thick, rough bark of older trees often discourages gnawing. Even on the same plant, rabbits avoid the rough bark but girdle the young sprouts that have smooth bark.
Rabbit damage rarely reaches economic significance in commercial fields or plantations, but there are exceptions. For example, marsh rabbits have been implicated in sugarcane damage in Florida. Growers should always be alert to the potential problems caused by locally high rabbit populations.