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Where have all the rabbits gone?

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:55 PM

Mark Twin once described golf as "a good walk, spoiled."

That kinda described the rabbit hunt Roy Denney and I went on awhile back.

We enjoyed a good walk, but that's about all we got out of it. No bunnies were bagged.

Roy and I stomped through bushes, briars and brambles for around three hours on his Gladeville farm, and jumped one cottontail. It was in a dense thicket, and dodged the load of No. 5's from Roy's little 16-gauge double.

As we headed home, nursing our briar scratches, we pondered the question: where have all the rabbits gone?

Granted, it's not easy to hunt them without beagles. But even though you don't expect to bag a five-rabbit limit by stomping through briar patches, there was a time when you could count on jumping several, and with some good/lucky shooting, collect two or three.

As a kid, that's how I hunted rabbits. I had a great squirrel dog named Kazan, but he refused to lower himself to wriggling through briars sniffing out rabbits. So I did it myself, kicking bushy fence rows and brush piles and stomping through weed-grown fields and orchards. I seldom came home rabbit-less.

Now the rabbits seem to have vanished.

Back during turkey and deer season I traveled numerous back-roads before daylight, and occasionally saw rabbits bouncing along. But not many.

It appears that bunnies are going the way of bobwhites. There was a time when every farm would have two or three coveys of quail, but nowadays flushing one is rare.

Wildlife biologists are at a loss to explain the decades-long demise of the quail, and I suspect the same applies to the growing scarcity of rabbits.

One theory for both is shrinking habitat. While it's true that there's not as much rural acreage and farmland as there used to be, even in areas where the habit remains ideal -- like Roy's farm -- the quail and rabbits aren't there like they once were.

Some quail hunters believe wild turkeys are partly to blame for the decline of the bobwhite: they claim that turkeys eat quail eggs, and as the turkey population has exploded, the quail population has proportionally shrunk.

Maybe so. But that doesn't explain a similar decline in rabbits. Turkeys aren't eating the rabbit eggs.

An increase in predators -- especially coyotes --is another theory for the decrease in small game. "Predators'' include feral and free-roaming housecats, which take a heavy toll on birds and small mammals.

Still, it's hard to believe that coyotes and stay cats can wipe out entire populations of quail and rabbits.

I suspect it's a combination of several things -- shrinking habitat and increased predators, along with an accumulation of pesticides and herbicides in the eco-system. We know that chemicals can poison fish in the water, so it's reasonable that they can poison birds and animals on the land.

Whatever the cause(s), there's no disputing the fact that quail have virtually vanished over the past 40 years, and now rabbits seem to be in similar decline.

With the state's deer and turkey populations in good shape, perhaps it's time for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to think small -- as in small game.

A rabbit hunt is more fun when there's a few rabbits around.

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