Notes from Windward: #70


In the World of Rabbits

a bunny tea party


     Almost since my arrival at Windward, I've been working with the bunnies‒all 32 of them‒nearly every day. Mary Lou had amassed a great knowledge about bunnies and passed along to me a lot of little tips for keeping them happy and healthy as well as mentions of the larger vision of the bunnies' role at Windward. In Windward's sustainability mission, they play an important role as grass-eaters who produce nitrogen-rich droppings and waste hay/straw which is ideal for use in the garden.

      Rabbits digest their food then excrete and pop into their mouths mucus-covered pellets for a second round of digestion. Most of the digestion of nutrients occurs in this second phase of digestion before the rabbit excretes a hard, dry pellet of undigestible matter. While it doesn't sound so appealing to me, I can definitely appreciate that it allows rabbits to digest materials that we humans are unable to. The rumen digestive systems of goats and sheep are another interesting example of adapted digestive systems that can break down cellulose.

     I also dug up a great older notes post by another intern a few years ago, Nikki, who was working on turning highly nutritious alfalfa hay dust, which otherwise goes to waste, into rabbit food‒check it out here. Because the final round of bunny poop is such a valuable resource for fertilizing the garden, I've taken to referring to the job of moving wheelbarrowfulls of bunny poop and straw as "saving the planet"‒who doesn't want to help out with that? So the rabbits' role as meat is secondary here to the other ways that they fit into Windward's sustainability systems.

     Lierre Keith writes in her book The Vegetarian Myth about how animals that we perceive as "domesticated"‒whether rabbits, dogs, or cows‒can also be perceived as having evolved to live in symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationships with humans. Their species are ensured continuation by being supported, sheltered, and provided for by humans; and in return, they are useful to us in a variety of ways.

     While this makes sense to me, it also means we have a significant responsibility to provide for them well and make sure they lead healthy, happy lives. As Gina said to me, how we treat our animals reflects deeply on us as people and our abilities to care for other people in our community‒especially the young, old, sick, poor, and otherwise marginalized.

having a conference on issues
facing the rabbit community while
playing outside in the rabbit pen

     As the rains have started and the oak leaves are reminding me daily that the seasons are changing fast, I've been thinking about the bunnies; for now, the wet and cold weather means that they don't get out to play in their playpen and it is getting harder for me to find greens to give them.

     Rabbits' bodies are well-adapted to eat grass, forage for tender greens, nibble on roots to keep their ever-growing teeth in check, and dig warrens and nesting holes, which keeps their nails short. Commercial feed, an invention popularized only in the past 50 or 60 years, can cause problems for rabbits' teeth, weight levels, and general excitement about life.

     Grasses, including alfalfa, should make up 70-80% of rabbits' diets, or the bottom of the bunny food pyramid; the next level is vegetables and fruits (max of about a golf ball-sized portion per rabbit per day), then grains such as crimped/rolled oats, cracked corn, barley, rye, millet, wheat, etc., which should compose the smallest portion of the rabbits' diets.

     Windward now has a pellet-making machine and could viably transition to feeding rabbits naturally (i.e. without commercial feed) with a mixture of grasses (of wheat, rye, oat and other grains as well as alfalfa and timothy hay) in pellet form. Greens could be dried and fed to the rabbits through the winter, or dandelions and other prolific weed-greens grown in pots indoors so the rabbits could continue to have a supply of greens, which are important for the fiber, vitamin, and calcium levels in their diets.

     I also found out that rabbits like twigs from certain trees which are both nutritious and good for their, hawthorne, willow, spruce, pear, and maple are all good options.

     For future bunny-caring interns and folks at Windward, here's an expanded list of foods that bunnies like‒I did some research to build on MaryLou's advice. I enjoy being able to dig up weeds in the garden, put aside the roots and plants that aren't so good for the bunnies, shake out the pile, and bring them over to the rabbits.

     It reinforces my sense that we can successfully be part of full, closed-loop cycles by which we can use resources (like weeds) and return nutrients to the earth (as bunny poop) and we, the bunnies, food-producing plants, and the earth can all benefit.

bunnies love carrots

     Good bunny foods: dandelion (excellent!), basil, kale (in limited quantities), collard greens, chard, sunflower (all parts‒could be planted near or around rabbit area to create shade), raspberry leaves, mallow (excellent), willow (high in protein!), clover, lambs-quarter**, chicory, comfrey (wilted/dried), nettles (wilted/dried), parsley, radish greens, sow thistle, dill, alfalfa (fresh or dried), timothy grass, green corn stalks, alfalfa sprouts, beet leaves, leaves of cauliflower and cabbage, carrot tops, endive, green pepper, raspberry leaves, turnip leaves, rose plant, sunflower seeds.

     Good-in-limited-quantity foods: apple slices/other fruits (limited b/c of sugar), beets and parsnips and carrots (limited b/c of sugar), pumpkin, radish, pea pods, peppers, zucchini/squash.

     There are a number of unsafe/toxic food lists out there for rabbits, which one should be aware of when foraging for bunnies. The unsafe foods which have been most relevant to avoid here at Windward are pine needles, oak leaves, docks, lettuce, seeds, onions, and pea and potato plant leaves.

bunnies don't particularly like tea

      Oak leaves and pine needles in particular are tasty for the bunnies but not good for them‒pine needles because they can cause tearing and internal lacerations if the bunnies don't chew them fully (and they don't seem to listen much to my mastication advice) and oak leaves, like apple leaves, can cause cyanide poisoning.

     As Mary Lou mentioned in a recent post, I make a point of holding the rabbits at least once a week, especially now that they aren't getting to play outside in the playpen because of the mud. Taking time to talk to them, interact with them, and check their ears, teeth, nails, skin, fur, chins, and eyes is important to making sure that they're healthy‒especially for the rabbits who are sharing cages with other rabbits.

     I've also enjoyed watching the groups of younger male and female bunnies who share cages ('s not bunny breeding season yet), who groom each other, play with each other, and snuggle up for warmth. Apparently allogrooming, their practice of mutually grooming each other, actually lowers their heartrates.

me/Eliot spending some quality time with one of the younger boy bunnies

     In addition to the books at Windward, here are some of the web resources I've been using...


     Creative Homesteading

     Homesteading Today

     3 Bunnies


Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70