Once upon a time back in my college days I took a class called “Animal Psychology.” The point of the class was NOT about trying to figure out the reasons behind Fido’s problems with his mother, but about why animals behave the way they do.
The idea was that different types of animal behavior affected success in the wild, helping or hurting an animal’s chances of surviving and reproducing. Some patterns, because of their consistent success, got passed on over and over again and led to the activities we see in animals today.
The professor was the first to point out that there are problems with this idea, so it probably isn’t the whole story, but hey: ducks waddle, quack and swim for a reason, right? And that was the whole point: it’s a duck as much because of what it does – like waddling or quacking – as because of what it has – like webbed feet and a bill.
So what about rabbits makes them rabbits, if not their long ears, rich fur, and twitchy noses? And how do we translate their behavior into something we can understand or relate to?
The Nose Knows, but the Ears Show
Let’s start with that twitchy nose. Until someone pointed it out to me, I’d have thought that all that movement was just a side-effect of breathing and sniffing.
But it turns out that the faster that nose is moving, the more interested or concerned Mr. Rabbit is with what’s going on around him. In fact, it’s such a reliable indicator that it’s the first thing I look at to see what’s going on in that little furry head.
The second thing I check is pretty obvious: the ears. Bunny ears generally come in three forms: your standard “uppy” ears, your lop ears which droop down by the side of the head, and your “airplane” ears that stick straight out to the sides like fuzzy wings.
You can think of this as the lapin equivalent of “brunette,” “blonde” and “red-head,” if you like. Since most bunnies tend toward the “uppy” direction, we’ll go with those as our model.
Secure, confident bunnies tend to keep those ears up, twisting them this way and that as they move around. Not only does this provide an “early warning” system, but also it lets them explore their area more completely.
It might look a bit like “radar” to us, and that’s fair because to them, it really is. They can hear how noise bounces differently off of different surfaces, and it tells them almost as much about their environment as their sensitive noses and whiskers do.
By contrast, a worried rabbit usually keeps its ears focused in the direction of a potential threat or danger, while the nose twitches quickly. If the situation progresses to the point where the bun gets downright scared, then the ears come down and go flat against the back, while the nose stops moving altogether.
Now you know the difference between a bunny that’s ready to run away, and a bunny that’s trying to be invisible.
Uppy ears tend to be most expressive due to their free range of motion, but the other types can still move around a bit, despite their pre-disposition. True lops tend to move their ears out and in instead of up and down, while the "airplane" ears can be just crazy in the number of directions they point.
And you might think that you could confuse flattened ears with those merely laid back while at rest, since a relaxed rabbit will let the ears droop to the back in a similar way. But you can tell the difference by watching the nose, and by looking for clues from the third key to “reading” a rabbit: its posture.
The Sultans of Spring
Not for nothing are rabbits known for their leaping ability: it's like their whole body is a fluffy coiled spring. A nervous or active bunny will hold herself high up off the ground, ready to bound away at any moment. A calm, comfortable bunny will relax a bit, letting himself just rest on the ground while keeping his big back feet flat - again, ready to spring.
But that spring can completely unwind, too.
Once, after Alice had grown to magnificent stature (she was big, I’m telling you), she wandered into the room and settled a few inches away from the wall, as though getting ready to sit for a while. I thought nothing of it until suddenly there was a big “whump!” as she just toppled over onto one side against the wall, hind feet splayed out to the side.
A heart attack? A seizure?? But no: Alice was merely performing the “bunny flop.”
A “bunny flop” is where the rabbit is so confident in its surroundings that when it finds a good spot to rest it just topples over onto its side in complete relaxation. Sometimes the head follows, sometimes the head stays upright, but you can tell that relaxation is the plan from the fact that those powerful hind legs are just kicked out to the side loose, instead of coiled up underneath as usual.
Now this move should not be confused with head-tilt, a potentially serious condition in rabbits which causes them to lose their balance periodically. But for most bunnies a flop like this is just their version of a serious unwind.
So there you are: the urban house rabbit is as easy to read as a spring - coiled or uncoiled - with radar-ears and a mood-ring nose. Too easy, right?
I’ll tell you how well I did with a couple of Alice’s “pop quizzes” in a later post.
Do have any tips or tricks, comments or questions about how to “talk” to your pets? Share them with us in the comments below!