We have rats in the barn. It seems unavoidable – rodents and barns just go together. There’s shelter from the elements, spilled feed, loose dirt/manure to be tunneled in, and in our case also a source of water – the creek is just feet away from the barn. I wasn’t all that worried about the rats at first, even when I was finding rat poop in the rabbits’ feeders. It seemed easy enough to just make sure the rabbits had all the food they needed during the day and then empty the feeders before dark. I saw the rats as a nuisance and a drain on the feed bill, but I wasn’t freaking out about it. We did adopt a couple of kittens from the local shelter under the assumption that they will grow up to be rat-killers and the problem would be solved.
Then we lost a couple of litters of newborn bunnies because the mothers peed in the nest boxes during the night and the babies froze. The first couple of times that happened it was first-time moms. Unfortunately first time rabbit moms occasionally do that, so although it is disappointing, it’s not generally a sign that something is wrong. With the next litter they usually do just fine. The in mid-January I had 3 rabbit does due within a couple days. Yes, rabbit females are called “does” and males are called “bucks” – just like deer. One of the three does looked huge, one had a complete attitude change (common for pregnant rabbits!), and all three built beautiful nests. But the due dates came and went and no babies were to be found. The huge one looked a bit less huge, so I wondered if she had just gotten a little fat and I’d imagined a baby belly. Maybe the rabbit with the attitude wasn’t related to pregnancy hormones…and the nest-building can happen with false pregnancies too….so I wrote it off and bred those three again.
The following week my angora doe had her babies and didn’t build a nest at all. She happened to have them during the day, so when I discovered the cold dead-looking newborns I immediately scooped them up and ran them to the house in time to revive them with the warm air of a hair dryer. There’s a saying among rabbit breeders that “they aren’t dead til they’re warm and dead” which I never would have believed before I had seen it. All 10 of those cold not-breathing newborn rabbits were alive and squirming within a few minutes once they were warmed up! Our best-momma-ever rabbit Robin had a small litter of babies just a few days older so I split her litter to give the angora mom just a few babies and gave Robin most of them. The angora ended up not taking care of hers and they died overnight 😦 But Robin’s group did great for several days. I checked them frequently and they were warm and had full bellies. But then she peed in the nest during the night and we lost a few…the same thing happened the next night and the next til they were all gone. At that point I realized it wasn’t just the new moms that were messing up. Something had to be WRONG for Robin to lose a whole litter like that and I realized it had to be the rats. I knew the rats were going into the feeders at night (hence the poop in the feeders) but while that was simply a nuisance most of the time, it suddenly dawned on me that it was causing major stress for the mother rabbits which could be what was causing them to pee in the nest boxes. When the next group of does was due again I removed all their feeders, attached wire over the 2 X 5 inch opening where the feeders had been and just put their food in bowls in the cage (empty at night). I hoped that would be enough to keep them safe.
The first one to birth was one of our Crème D’Argents Pixie. She had a new litter of babies around 3:00 in the afternoon. She’d done everything a momma rabbit should do – she built a beautiful nest of hay in the nest box, lined it with her own fur, had her babies there, cleaned everything up really well, and then left them alone. Rabbits only go to their nest about 2 times in a 24-hour period to feed and tend to their babies. The rest of the time they keep away to avoid drawing predators to the nest. The babies stay still and very quiet while the mom is gone. ***Side note: I do find it fascinating how the newborn instincts of baby animals are perfectly matched with how the parents of the species raise their young – baby animals that are meant to be left alone by their mothers for periods of time are instinctually quiet to help themselves hide and therefore survive, while newborn animals that need their mother to be constantly close will cry out when left alone. Humans are the only species I am aware of that sometimes go against those natural instincts in order to “train” babies to behave differently.*** Anyhow, babies were born and life was good for the little rabbit family for a few hours. I thought all was well.
I was wrong.
This guy showed up next:
Shortly after dark TS had gone to the barn and when he returned he told me he didn’t want to worry me but he’d thought something looked off in the new babies’ cage. I thought it was probably nothing, but ran down to the barn with a flashlight. What I found was awful – the newborn bunnies had been mostly eaten right out of the nest and I saw the killer scurrying off.
I spent the next hour shouting expletives, crying, and declaring war on all rodents. At some point I remembered the nest box full of carnage I’d dropped on the front porch on my way back to the house. I looked through the remains and found that ONE baby remained unharmed! I pulled out all the awfulness so that the remaining little guy had only clean hay and fur to snuggle with. We brought him in for the night. TS disposed of the rest and then cleared a spot on top of our tall bookshelf for the nest box to stay for the night.
The next morning I took the box back to the mom, who was excited to have her little one back. She fed him and did all the momma things. TS spent the morning rearranging stuff in the shed to make room for two cages so we could move the other two very-pregnant does into the shed so they’d hopefully be safe. That night our Californian doe Ruby gave birth to a litter of THIRTEEN!!! Two days later the Crème doe Sunshine now has 9 as well. I’ve been taking Pixie’s remaining baby to her for feedings in the morning and evening and she’s doing an excellent job taking care of him. Tonight I moved a few of the other does’ babies into the nest box with him so that Pixie can have a few more to take care of and lessen the load on Ruby and Sunshine. Rabbit does have only 8 nipples, so any more than 8 babies is a lot.
We have now declared war on the rats.
We’ve given up on traps. The rat(s) that ate Pixie’s babies ignored 2 traps baited with stinky canned cat food. We have gone to the dark side – poison. The first night we set out 2.5 bricks of rat poison – one inside a closed live-trap and two separate halves under wire baskets weighed down with rocks. (We want to kill the rats/mice that can fit through the wire mesh, NOT the neighbors’ obnoxious dogs.) The next morning both the half-bricks were completely gone – not a crumb remained. After the second night, the whole brick was gone as well. TS put more out the third night and those were completely gone the next morning as well. We are also in the process of putting a rat-proof wire mesh “ceiling” over the rabbits’ area to keep our rat-killers (aka kittens) IN and rats OUT.
I think what we really need is this:
But what we have is this:
I’ll share more about the barn kittens later. They may not be rat-killers yet but they are awesome!