Tale of the Midnight Bunny

Tale of the Midnight Bunny

Photo by Olivia Richards and Schyler Schewe.

Eastern cottontail rabbits are frequently described as crepuscular, meaning active at dawn and dusk. The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington, an online site documenting various plant and animal species found on the real nature trail at that school, describes how the eastern cottontail’s “crepuscular (dusk and dawn) pattern of foraging activity is augmented in the summer by a nocturnal time expansion.” A Cornell blogger, recent article in The New York Times, and WelcomeWildlife.com all repeat the same information: Eastern cottontails are crepuscular.

Field guides tend to be more generous with the time window for eastern cottontails, but still focus on dawn and dusk. For example, in Mammals of the Great Lakes Region, Allen Kurta states that they “forage at any time of day or night, but perhaps more commonly just after sunrise or near sunset.” Perhaps?

Having internalized this information for years, I was a little surprised when my first game camera rabbit showed up near midnight. Was the common belief that bunnies are crepuscular just a stereotype reinforced by frequent repetition?

Recognizing that one photo of one rabbit does not a pattern make, my student Alyssa Valentyn got quite a bit more systematic about rabbit timing and compiled records showing exactly when eastern cottontails were active this past summer. The answer? Fully 60 percent of her 39 rabbit photographs showed up on game cameras at night time, another 20 percent showed up in day time, and the remaining 20 percent of observations happened in the stereotypical crepuscular dawn/dusk time frame. Students Olivia Richards and Schyler Schewe are following up with winter observations and finding similar patterns.

I’m not ready to declare that all eastern cottontails everywhere are nocturnal, but I’m convinced that rabbits on the Saint Michael’s College campus are certainly not crepuscular. So when do you see rabbits on your game cameras? If you are interested in participating in a bit of citizen science, click here to send me your rabbit observations: Where and when did the rabbits appear? I’ll keep track of the list and see if there’s a broader pattern of midnight bunnies.

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Discussion
  1. Sarah Meyers → in Shelburne, VT
    Feb 16, 2018

    I am in the habit of turning on the backyard lights just before bedtime at 11 pm, and have been surprised several times to find an Eastern cottontail feeding on birdseed spilled from the feeders. Have also seen a grey fox, possibly preying on the rabbits.

  2. Michael Gow → in Rehoboth, MA
    Feb 17, 2018

    I also had the understanding that Eastern Cottontails are most active during dawn and dusk but upon my experiences on our 3 1/2 acre plot of land, I now say differently. Although I do not have a game camera, my car headlights seems to do the trick. Often time when I arrive home, my headlights coming down the long driveway catch rabbits actively forgagung on small vegetation then quickly hopping away into the safety of the trees. Then, as I leave for work at 5:20 each morning, I hear the scampering of what must be rabbits out on the edge of the thickets. I am only hoping that one day, I have the chance to see an owl prowling from above.

  3. Laura → in Holliston, Massachusetts
    Feb 19, 2018

    Good Evening,

    I do not have pictures, I can get a camera and take photos.

    For many years I have observed rabbits in my own yard and also the yards in surrounding towns that I do landscaping in. I see the Eastern Cottontail active at various times. They are usually hopping amongst the flowers in the gardens that I care for during normal daytime hours. As for my gardens at home, my husband and I see them dawn, dusk and because both of us are horrible sleepers, we see them at midnight and during the wee hours of the morning (1-2am) lounging out on our front lawn. We have lived in our same home for 32 years, this has been their pattern as long as I can remember.

  4. Declan McCabe → in Saint Michael's College
    Feb 20, 2018

    Thank you for these observations!  I’m keeping track of them. Photos are not essential; an observation is an observation.  St. Mikes students are continuing with systematic 24/7 camera trapping and your direct observations will be added to the mix to round out the big picture (no pun intended).

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