Sunday, July 13, 2008

The secret life of Peter Cottontail

Last year I began to wonder how much space an urban cottontail needs when I spotted a mother rabbit and two friendly offspring in The Flamingo's garden. I grew up seeing rabbits emerge from several acres of woods at dusk to browse the field next to us and probably unthinkingly assumed they need lots of space because they had it. The Flamingo rabbits—at least one of which remains, presumably the mother—made me think that rabbits may be able to get by on very little indeed, if that very little offers them what they need.

The courtyard at the Hyde Park Shopping Center is dominated by a tree of respectable girth and crown, centered in a raised planter and surrounded by wood chips and flowering and nonflowering plants.

And a tiny, quarter-grown rabbit.

I first noticed the little bunny a couple of weeks ago when I made my habitual visit to Bonjour. Generally, small children spot it before their more distracted parents do. When you get too close, which is easy given its space, it either freezes or hops away. But it can retreat only so far, because the tree planter is only so big—perhaps 25' by 25' with the corners cut out to form a cross. It's not as shy as my old woodland rabbits; this morning it hopped to within a couple of feet of me, but a noise or movement spooked it, and it flew off—to the center of the planter, where it is furthest from the people sitting around the edges.

I wonder if it has gotten out, or even if it can. The planter is about two feet off the ground with a ledge that invites you to sit on it, as I am now. If it could escape, where would it go? The courtyard is bounded by 55th Street on one side and stores on three, with a walkway out to a large parking lot. If it crossed 55th, it would find town homes with shady yards. If it crossed the parking lot and Lake Park (or took the sidewalk along 55th east), it would get to the railroad embankment. If it traveled west on the sidewalk, it would find a lawn and then more town homes.

Perhaps it hangs around the planter by day and hops off at night. I don't know.

I wonder about this because, come winter, its cozy little planter won't support it. Yesterday, a man, his little boy, and I watched it as it neatly nipped off and devoured a half dozen flowers (decorations to you, food to rabbits). It seems to have eaten many but not nearly all of this particular flower. Is that really all it gets to eat? There will be no flowers soon enough.

Of course it had to have come from somewhere. I doubt it was born in that planter and hope that a human didn't put it there. For all I know, it could wander afield in the evening and at night. It would be interesting to know just what it does and where it goes.

Rabbits are adaptable creatures that are able to live in unusual places. While they may be pests to gardeners, they also serve as ambassadors of nature for the urban child, who finds them just as fascinating as I do wherever they are found—in a garden, among the rocks at Promontory Point, or even in a shopping center planter.

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