Wild rabbits are a common animal you’ll see everywhere during spring summer and fall. Yet in the winter months, they tend to disappear. So you may be wondering if rabbits hibernate in winter?
Wild Rabbits do not hibernate in the winter months. Rabbits do not have the biological ability for long periods of dormancy. To remain active rabbits need to make special adaptations to survive. In winter rabbits will change their physical appearance, diet, habitat, and activity levels.
If you want to know more about the specific changes rabbits make during the winter keep reading. This guide will take you through everything you need to know about how rabbits survive during the winter.
So let’s begin.
Can Rabbits hibernate?
Hibernation is a series of changes a warm-blooded animal makes to its body to enable it to lay dormant for a period of time. These physical changes include them dropping their heart rate, breathing, temperature and metabolism. They also have the ability to stop eliminating waste.
The main purpose of hibernation is to allow animals to save energy when the winter season makes survival harder. Hibernating animals need to have hormones and blood chemicals that trigger the dormancy process.
Rabbits do not have the body functions to hibernate and it is not a natural behavior for them. Rabbits don’t need to hibernate as they usually have access to food supplies despite the winter conditions. Wild rabbits need to remain active to source food and eliminate waste.
So if rabbits don’t hibernate then what do they do?
Although rabbits don’t hibernate, they still need to make adaptations that help them to survive the harsh weather and low food supply.
How Do Rabbits Survive In Winter
All wildlife that endures winter seasons need to make their own special adaptations to survive. Wild rabbits are no different. Rabbits will make a variety of preparations before the winter arrives and also changes when the winter arrives.
These adaptations are held to ensure rabbits have enough energy to stay warm, safe, and forage for food.
Let’s look at how rabbits achieve this each year.
1. Grow a winter coat
The first preparation wild rabbits make for winter is to grow a winter coat. This will help them to stay warm from the harsh winter weather.
A rabbit will start the process well before winter. In spring and autumn, they’ll shed a lot of their existing fur. Then as the winter months approach they’ll start to grow thicker hair.
A rabbit’s fur is made up of three parts:
- Guard hair
- Guide hair
The down is the first layer near the rabbit’s skin. It’s a soft, fluffy, underlayer with lots of hairs that keep the rabbits insulated.
The guard hair is the middle layer. In winter rabbits will grow much more guard hair as it helps to seal in heat and keep the rabbit weatherproof. Extra guard hair enables some species of rabbit to take on a slightly darker shade in winter. This means the rabbit retains more heat from the sun.
The guide hair is the top layer of the bunny. These are long and rough. The guide hair helps to keep the rabbit’s other hair layer and skin protected. It provides a layer of padding against the environment, predators, injury, and parasites.
In winter the guide hair grows thicker and courser for extra protection. In some species can become a lighter color to help the rabbit blend in better with the snowy landscapes.
2. Build a fat layer
Another preparation rabbits make for the winter is to build up a fat layer. Rabbits try to do this in the summer months when there is lots of food available to fill up on.
Rabbits will try to eat as much as they can to put on an extra layer of fat. Although this fat is not just any normal fatty layer. It’s a special type known as brown fat.
During winter brown fat has two purposes for rabbits:
- Give them energy
- Give them heat
This fat layer together with the thicker coat provides the rabbit with insulation to stay as warm as they can in the winter.
As the rabbit’s normal white fat cells run out the rabbit switches to using brown fat. It’s like an emergency fat storage that helps them survive. The energy and heat production will give them enough of a supply to forage for a food source to keep them alive.
The more brown fat a rabbit can put on the better their chance of survival. Lower temperatures mean using up more brown fat. So if it’s a long, cold winter the rabbit’s survival will depend on their brown fat supply.
3. Switch their diet
Rabbits are herbivores and their diet consists mainly of grasses, vegetation, and crops. Although rabbits are pretty good at finding food, they can struggle with heavy snowfall or frozen grounds.
During the worst weather rabbits will change their diets so they eat harder vegetation such as tree bark, twigs, and woody plants. Berries and field crops are also a good source of food for rabbits during the winter.
Rabbits will reduce the amount of food they eat during the winter. This allows them to conserve energy through a lack of foraging.
You’ll also find that rabbits will create burrows near a good food source such as trees or a crop field. This also helps them to save energy by not having to travel too far to find food. It also helps to keep them safe by reducing their exposure to predators.
4. Find shelter
You know that rabbits don’t hibernate in the winter, but where do they go?
Finding a good place to shelter is a priority for rabbits in the winter. Not only do they need protection from the harsh weather but also predators. The lack of leaves or greener and stark white snow makes it much harder for rabbits to hide.
Rabbits are mostly looking for a place of protection that keeps them well hidden. The best shelter for a rabbit in winter is an underground burrow. Although rabbits may also shelter in hallowed out trees, thick bushes, or vegetation piles.
The advantage of a burrow is the temperature remains consistent at around 50°F (10°C) all year round. So in winter, there are no fluctuations to the rabbit’s usual resting place.
Rabbits will try and make their shelter as close to a food source as possible. The closer the food source is to their shelter the better their chances of survival.
Most rabbit species will sleep together in burrows known as a warren. This gives them extra warmth for body heat and a sense of security from safety in numbers.
Although cottontail rabbits are the exception, they are a solitary rabbit species. Cottontails can be very aggressive with other rabbits they find on their patch.
5. Eat their poo
One fact about rabbits that may surprise you is that they are coprophagic animals. That means they eat their own feces.
This behavior sounds disgusting but is nutritionally beneficial for rabbits during winter.
During this time rabbit digestion slows down to conserve energy. This leaves a lot of their food only partially digested. This allows rabbits to pass poop known as cecotropes or cecal pellets.
Cecotropes are then eaten by rabbits to try and get more nutrients out of the food they eat. Vitamin B and vitamin K are two nutrients that rabbits can extract well from eating their poo again. Plus it provides them with two meals from one food source.
6. Reduce activity
A rabbit’s ability to reduce its daily activity is essential to help them survive through the winter. Once Rabbits find a good place to shelter they keep their daily activity to a minimum. This is why you don’t see rabbits as much in winter.
Rabbits will try to sleep for around 8 hours per day. They won’t do this in one long block. Instead, a rabbit will take lots of short naps throughout the day. The rest of their time will be spend foraging or sitting still.
To help reduce their need for activity a rabbit’s metabolism will slow. This means they need to eat less food than they do at other times of the year.
Rabbits will stay in their shelters and use up their brown fats if weather conditions are too bad to graze.
If a rabbit is too active during the winter either sourcing food, or fleeing from predators then they risk using too much energy. That’s why the initial sheltering place for a rabbit is vital to their survival.
Staying together as a group helps rabbits reduce their activity levels as they can collectively use their energy to find a good food source.
Do Rabbits migrate?
Wild rabbits do not migrate in the winter. Rabbits will stay in the same area for most of their lives. Although a rabbit may need to move to find a better shelter with a good food source. Rabbits don’t need to migrate as they can adapt to winter conditions.
The reason rabbits may need to move is usually due to predators. This may be a wild animal who has stumbled upon the rabbit’s shelter. It may also be human activity that has disturbed the rabbit.
Usually, a rabbit will make their shelter next to a food source, so they try to stay as close as possible to that. Although it can be tricky if there are aggressive cottontails nearby that will prevent them nesting.
How Cold Can Rabbits Tolerate?
Rabbits are wild animals that can adapt to very cold winter conditions down to 30°F (-2°C).
Yet it’s a natural instinct for them not to do much more than eating and sleeping. If a rabbit becomes startled in the cold it can get easily confused and can cause itself a fatal injury.
A rabbit’s normal body temperature is around 102-103°F (38-39°C). IF this drops below 89°F (31°C) then the rabbit will start to suffer symptoms of hypothermia. A rabbit is unlikely to survive if its body temperature reaches lower than 50°F (10°C).
Finding a good shelter to hunker to stay warm and protected is an essential winter survival strategy for wild rabbits.
Although wild rabbits don’t hibernate in the winter, they do make special adaptations. These changes help rabbits to survive through the harsh winter weather and reduced food supply.
The adaptations the rabbit make include changing diet, growing winter fur, finding shelter, and reducing daily activity.
These strategies help the rabbit to survive longer without food and keep themselves safe from hungry predators. Once the weather starts to improve in spring the rabbits readjust to having more food and protection from predators.