By: Tom Lounsbury.
The cottontail rabbits have it easy on our farm, that is until Christmastime. Prior to that, my focus during the fall has been on waterfowl, squirrels, grouse, woodcock, pheasants, wild turkeys, and deer. Thanks to all wildlife diversity which is found in Michigan, my hunting schedule is rather full without adding cottontails to the mix.
When fall transcends into winter however, my focus takes an abrupt change with rabbit hunting stepping up to the forefront. The long, cold winters are made much shorter thanks to an abundance of local cottontails and a lengthy rabbit season which goes all the way to the end of March.
I’ve always looked after the rabbits on my property by continually creating brush piles for them, and a brush pile can be a key element to promoting that specie, as it creates a haven from most predators and the ravages of winter. This rabbit program originally started on 10 acres my wife Ginny and I had purchased from my parents for building our home. I had 20 years to develop that little strip of land into what I felt was a wildlife haven, by annually planting a diverse mixture of trees and shrubs, including a small fruit orchard. During this process, the cottontails started from just a few in the existing fencerow near our home, to become a common sight in our yard, which today entails mostly trees and shrubs.
By the time my three sons were old enough to hunt, rabbit hunting not far from the house became a regular wintertime activity with Christmas marking the timeframe we started this often very challenging and entertaining pastime. Besides our 10 acres, a drainage ditch runs across the center of the family farm, and despite intensive farming along both sides of it, I also created brush piles where possible on its banks as well. All this combined to promote the welfare of the cottontails, which in turn enhanced the rabbit hunting opportunities on a regular basis close to home.
It was when my wife Ginny and I purchased the remainder of the family farm and began a process of putting most of it into CRP and CREP, that the cottontails received a real boost in the form of, for a rabbit, endless habitat. What was once tilled ground became large prairie grass fields bordered by evergreen and shrub shelterbelts. In short, all the cover combined became the Garden of Eden (or what I call “rabbitat”) for the ever-prolific cottontails.
Having a “seed crop” of cottontails already on the original 10 acres as well as on the ditch, rabbits being rabbits, it didn’t take long for them to procreate a whole bunch of more rabbits, which in turn made even more rabbits. An advantage for them was the large fields of tall prairie grass which spread out their territories, creating harder work for predators, especially the eyes in the sky entailing hawks and owls.
With prairie grass fields along each side of my original 10 acres which is filled with shrubs and trees, the occasional rabbit tracks in the snow around our yard suddenly became literal rabbit runs with a cobweb design, especially developing when the snow became deep. Fortunately, most of my trees and shrubs had matured enough to withstand the annual winter damage created by continually gnawing rabbits. Some shrubs, however, were at a point in their growth where the rabbits stunted them continually or destroyed them entirely. I learned to immediately put plastic rabbit guards (sections of field tile) on newly planted fruit saplings, because cottontails have a sweet tooth for fruit trees newly delivered from the tree nursery. I will always remember when snow depths allowed rabbits to girdle several young apple and pear trees above the plastic guards, and these were trees which would have produced fruit for the first time the following summer.
I have learned the hard way that when snow depths build up around the plastic rabbit guards, I need to do some shoveling, because if a rabbit can stand up on its hind legs and reach above the guard, it’s a done deal, and on some surprisingly large fruit trees.
I used to have a beautiful crabapple tree right behind my mailbox. The tree was a rather nice (and expensive) size when I purchased it, and I can remember carrying countless buckets of water for it down my long driveway to help it survive during its first (very dry) summer. Then winter arrived and snow had drifted up above the rabbit guard one night, and when I stopped at the mailbox to get our mail, I noticed the crabapple tree had been completely girdled, with the distinct tracks and droppings around it declaring as to who the culprits were. Yep, folks, I found myself muttering all the way back to the house.
I realize I have created my own problem in this regard, but I do enjoy being able to go rabbit hunting literally not far from my house, so it is a bit of a trade off. While I may complain about the rabbit damage, I do dearly love to go wintertime rabbit hunting.
Because they haven’t been hunted since the close of the previous rabbit season, when Christmastime arrives, my resident cottontails are suddenly caught by surprise when my three sons (and now grandchildren too) and I get together for the holiday hunt. Performing a well-executed rabbit drive according to weather is a top priority, and this first hunt is usually a heyday affair which often includes rooster pheasants getting caught in the ensuing melee. With an ongoing December pheasant season, adding roosters to the pot works for us!
I am the “driver” (I call myself a “pooch”) and I turn out my entire kennel of hunting dogs to assist me as a cohesive team in holding a steady line which moves rabbits toward funnels and pinch points in the cover where everyone else are acting as “standers”. Since we are mainly hunting in and around the yard, the rabbits are heading for underneath various outbuildings and places such as the woodpile and muskrat holes on the edge of the farm pond. Many rabbits will also fan out into the nearby prairie grass, where getting a shot at them once they get into the chest-high cover is impossible.
While I may mutter sometimes about the rabbit-damage around my home, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without our annual holiday rabbit hunt. The rest of the family in the house have gotten used listening to Christmas music in the background and baking cookies while there is gunfire suddenly erupting all around the yard. Of course, that is Christmastime here on the Lounsbury farm and a seasonal blend of family traditions which include towing kids in a sled on trails and other outdoor activities besides the rabbit hunt.
And yes, Santa Claus does drop in every Christmas Eve, right in front of our house. There will be the reindeer tracks, sled-runner marks, boot-prints, and even genuine reindeer droppings lying in plain sight (and the hay put out for the reindeer will be all eaten) to prove it to all on Christmas morning. The proof is in the pudding and yep, there really is a Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas folks!