Citation: Bilkó, Á.; Petróczi, I.;
Bárdos, B.; Nagy, I.; Altbacker, V.
Composition of the Wild Rabbit Nest
and Its Implication for Domestic
Rabbit Breeding. Appl. Sci. 2022,12,
Academic Editor: Franco Mutinelli
Received: 5 January 2022
Accepted: 8 February 2022
Published: 11 February 2022
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Composition of the Wild Rabbit Nest and Its Implication for
Domestic Rabbit Breeding
Ágnes Bilkó1, Imre Petróczi 1, Boróka Bárdos 2, István Nagy 3, * and Vilmos Altbacker 2
1Department of Ethology, Eötvös University, 1/C Pázmány P., 1117 Budapest, Hungary;
email@example.com (Á.B.); firstname.lastname@example.org (I.P.)
2Kaposvar Campus, Department of Nature Conservation, University of Agricultural and Life Sciences,
40 Guba S., 7400 Kaposvar, Hungary; email@example.com (B.B.);
3Kaposvar Campus, Department of Animal Science, University of Agricultural and Life Sciences,
40 Guba S., 7400 Kaposvar Hungary
Wild European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) give birth in an underground nursery burrow
where the kits are hermetically closed into the nest chamber for several weeks except for the three
minutes of daily nursing. Given this conﬁnement, the nest quality seems to be crucial in affecting the
kits’ survival. The situation is less critical in rabbitries where the domesticated descendants are kept
and give birth in separate nest boxes where the temperature and humidity conditions are less extreme
and nests consist of fur and wood shavings or straw. However, nesting behaviour of domestic does
still reﬂects several aspects of the ancestors, and providing conditions close to their biological needs
is advised. The present study aimed to understand the factors contributing to the nest material
choice of rabbits by analysing the composition of wild rabbit nests and testing naive domestic does in
controlled laboratory settings for their preferences in constructing their nests. We were able to collect
21 just abandoned nests in their natural habitat and found they contained rabbit fur and hay, of which
85% was dry grass, mostly long leaves of Calamagrostis sp. Using domesticated rabbit does, we then
tested if there is a preference for the features of the wild rabbit nests or whether the above-mentioned
ﬁnding was either an accidental consequence of grass availability or ageing of the nest material.
Two-way choice tests revealed that primiparous domestic does preferred the dry grass over green
and long leaves over short grass bunches for nest building. Ageing of the nest material was rather
negligible and did not contribute to the high level of dry grass content. We concluded that long dry
grass is recommended as it seems to fulﬁl basic needs of this domesticated animal.
Keywords: European rabbit; Oryctolagus cuniculus; nest building; preference
Maternal behaviour of mammals often includes nest building in which they might
simply hide the litter from predators or it can be a more elaborate construction providing
the young with a balanced microclimate [
]. The quality of the nest can be important for
a number of reasons. In general, nests of burrowing small mammals insulate them from
ﬂuctuating weather conditions [
]. As a result, the nest can affect the magnitude of energy
conservation and consequently is considered crucial [
] or even critical [
] from the
aspect of survival or reproduction [
]. Physical features such as the insulation capacity of
the nest are of utmost importance where outer conditions are harsh and energetic costs are
The harsh conditions are also characteristic to litters of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus
]. Unlike most of the Lagomorphs, the European wild rabbit does construct
an underground nursery burrow [
]. Kindling takes place in the burrow and the doe
gives birth to a relatively large litter of 2–6 naked kits with closed eyes [
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915. https://doi.org/10.3390/app12041915 https://www.mdpi.com/journal/applsci
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915 2 of 10
underdeveloped animals are only visited once each day [
] by the doe. Meanwhile the
kits are closed into the nest chamber to reduce predation [
] or infanticide [
]. The kits
spend much of the day resting [
], and due to their tolerance of high CO
low oxygen consumption, they can still breath through aerated sandy soils, the distribution
of which limits rabbit range [26,27].
By using an internal clock for anticipating the maternal visits [
], the kits uncover
from the nest material and are prepared by the time of the next visit to suckle one third
of their body mass in just three minutes [
] from the extremely rich milk [
nursing, the doe leaves and covers the nest entrance. The kits urinate and burrow back into
the grass and fur, becoming dry as they do so [
]. As the contact is already reduced to a
minimum, the survival of the offspring is very much dependent on the conditions inside
the nest [
]. The doe collects grass and brings it in her mouth to the chamber where a so
called “straw nest” [
] is constructed a few days before parturition. On the last night, the
mother plucks fur from her belly and incorporates that into the construction [
the grass and the fur were found to be necessary for the survival of the young [
even in laboratory settings, where wood shavings or straw are often provided for practical
]. The importance of nesting material has also been demonstrated for wild
rabbits in captive condition .
The present study aimed to understand the factors contributing to the nest material
choice of rabbits by analysing the composition of wild rabbit nests and testing captive do-
mestic animals in controlled laboratory settings for the behavioural processes contributing
to making nests in these animals.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Animals and Experimental Design
For the laboratory analysis of nest material choice, experimental subjects were ran-
domly chosen primiparous females of chinchilla bred domestic rabbits, originating from
Germany (Standard Chinchilla by Thomae, Biberach) and bred in our laboratory (at Göd,
Hungary). The pregnant females, weighing 2.7 + 0.2 kg, were housed individually in stan-
dard wire rabbit cages (100Lenght
45Height cm) with ad libitum laboratory
pelleted rabbit food and water. The cages were equipped with an outer wooden nest-box
35H cm). The entrance was located in the middle of the 45 cm long side and
it was open during the experiment thus the doe could freely visit their kits. Temperature
was kept between 18–22
C. Illumination was also kept constant during the experiments
at Light:Dark = 14:10 with light on at 0700 h. The animal housing and the studies were
carried out in accordance with the European Communities Council Directive of 10/05/2013
(86/609/EEC). The number of animals used in the study was reduced as little as possible
(1998./XXVIII. Hungarian law on the protection and welfare of animals). Using a small
sample size still enabled us to ﬁnd large scale differences among the groups.
2.2. Experiment 1
For describing the composition of original rabbit nests, we searched for above ground
signs of rabbit litters in the open sandy grassland patches of the Bugac Juniper Forest
(Kiskunság National Park, Hungary) during the breeding season. We followed their
activity until the nest was unoccupied then the nest material was collected into sealable
sterile bags and kept at 5
C until the analysis. This way the composition of wild rabbits
nests (N = 21) could be collected. The plant and fur components were separated and their
volume was estimated. Further analysis was restricted to the plant components only. For
this purpose, ten subsamples of 25–40 pieces of plants were picked out by forceps from
each nest and identiﬁed under a NIKON SMZ1270 microscope using 40
For each piece, the species identity and its colour indicating if it was green (fresh) or yellow
(dry) were determined under the microscope. The length of the grass pieces was also
measured to the nearest cm using a plastic ruler. These subsample data were then averaged
to characterise the composition of the nest.
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915 3 of 10
2.3. Experiment 2
Thirty weeks old randomly chosen primiparous females (N = 7) served as subjects
and tested on day 28 of pregnancy in a two-way choice test. The cages were equipped with
an outer wooden nest box (45L
35H cm) at 9 AM. The entrance was located in the
middle of the 45 cm long side and it was open during the experiment thus the doe could
freely visit the box. Does were offered two grass tussocks of equal volume, but differing
in their dryness, in the two corners opposite to the nest box at 16.00. The predominantly
Calamagrostis grass material of both tussocks was collected the same morning from the
same place, but one of them was dried out in a drying oven for four hours at 50
The treatment resulted in a yellowish dry grass matching the colour and condition of
normal hay. The amount offered was 2 dm
each which was about 200 g green and 100 g
dry grass. As this is about the volume of a complete nest, any of the two types was
sufﬁcient for completing the nest building. The nest material choice tests were run the
same afternoon from 16.00 to 17.00. During the one hour of observation, the behaviour
of the does was observed from behind a paravan set 2 m apart. The observer recorded
(continuous recording) and the time spent in the following variables: eating, collecting
each grass type, or being in the nest box. Behaviour in the nest box was not measured
as dim light in the box prevented observation. After the test the percent of time spent
was determined for each variable. The resulting nest material were replaced by the same
amount of hay, while the composition of the materials collected by the does was analysed
in the way described above for wild rabbit nests. Due to the long preparation and analysis
phases, only one doe per day was tested.
The resulting nests from this test were also used test if the high percentage of dry
material in the wild rabbit nests resulted from ageing due to later recovery of such nests,
instead of a preference for such material. Wild rabbit nests were found several weeks apart
during the breeding season, thus the storage differences of the wild rabbit nests could be
eliminated by using the nests just collected. For this, at the end of the nest composition data
collection, the seven nests of known initial composition were put in cotton bags and kept
in a refrigerator at 5
C, which is the average soil temperature (measured at 50 cm below
ground) of the study site in the breeding season (own unpublished data). The composition
of these nests was reanalysed once a week for four consecutive weeks, corresponding
to the period from parturition until weaning when the original rabbit nests were most
2.4. Experiment 3
Another set of randomly chosen primiparous, thirty-week-old domestic rabbit females
(N = 7) were tested on day 28 of pregnancy in a two-way choice test on the preference of
the length of nest material. Does were offered two dry grass tussocks of equal volume, but
differing in their length, placed in the two corners opposite to the nest box. The material
of both tussocks was collected from the same grassland patch, dried out and divided into
two tussocks of equal volume (2 dm
). One of the tussocks was cut to be long (30 cm),
while the other was short (10 cm) and presented to the females. During the one hour of
observation period from 16.00 to 17.00 the behaviour of the does was monitored the same
way described in Experiment 2.
2.5. Statistical Analyses
In Experiment 2 and 3 the relative percentage of collecting as well as of eating grass
in the two-way choice tests was compared using Wilcoxon matched-pairs signed-ranks
tests. The effect of ageing of the nest material in Experiment 2 was analysed by Fisher exact
test and by Friedman nonparametric ANOVA for repeated measures followed by Dunn
multiple comparison test. IBM SPSS Statistics 27.0 (Student Licence) was used to perform
the statistical analyses.
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915 4 of 10
3.1. Experiment 1
The composition of the wild rabbit nests is summarised in Tables 1and 2. Each nest
contained an outer layer of plant material and an inner cover of rabbit fur in roughly equal
volumes. The majority 85% (
4% SE) of plant material was long dry grass, mostly of
Calamagrostis epigeios. The remaining green material consisted mostly of bunches of the
moss Hypnum cupressiforme, and, being rather variable among the nests, short pieces of
different green plants such as Polygonatum ofﬁcinalis and Colchicum autumnale.
Table 1. Basic elements of the wild rabbit nests (N = 21) from Bugac Juniper Forest, Hungary.
Percent Volume (Standard Error)
Fur 43 (12.2)
Plant material 55 (14.7)
Other (eg. sand, litter) 2 (3.8)
Table 2. The composition of the wild rabbit nests.
Percent Plant Material (Standard Error)
Total dry 84.4 (14.5)
Hypnum c. 7.4
Polygonatum o. 3.2
Total green 15.6 (14.5)
3.2. Experiment 2
When presented with the grass, the pregnant does immediately started to explore by
snifﬁng both bunches of the unknown grass material. They spent a lot of time hopping in
and out of the nest box which behaviour was frequently preceded by digging movements.
After a few minutes they started collecting the grass by picking out a few dozen leaves and
bringing into the nest box. The females spent more time collecting dry than green grass
(Figure 1), which is a signiﬁcant difference by Wilcoxon matched-pairs signed-ranks test
(W = 26, N = 7, p< 0.05) showing that there is a preference even in the domestic rabbits
for collecting dry grass. On the contrary, the animals spent much more time eating the
green rather than the dry grass (Wilcoxon test: W = 21, N = 7, p< 0.05). Additionally, the
animals spent 31% of the test time within the nest box where we sometimes could see them
arranging and eating the grass. Although because of the dim light we could not determine
which grass type was eaten, analysis of the nest composition after the test suggested there
could be a differential grazing inside the nest too. The dry grass content of freshly made
nests by primiparous domestic females was 85%, signiﬁcantly different from chance by
Fisher exact test (X
= 12.1, p< 0.01), and signiﬁcantly higher (Wilcoxon matched-pairs
signed-ranks test W = 24, N = 7, p< 0.05) than the 75% ratio of collection directed to the
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915 5 of 10
The percentage of time spent collecting or eating from either the green or dry grass by
naive primiparous domestic rabbit females (N = 7) during the one-hour observation period. Asterisks
indicate signiﬁcant differences (p< 0.05) in Wilcoxon matched-pairs signed-ranks tests.
The effect of ageing on the estimate of grass dryness was tested by repeatedly analysing
the composition of stored nests for four weeks (Figure 2). Although the original ratio of 85%
had been gradually increased to 91% by the end of the 4th week, only the change between
the ﬁrst and the last two weeks was signiﬁcant by the Dunn test (alpha = 0.05) following
Friedman nonparametric ANOVA for repeated measures (Fr = 18.38, N = 7, p< 0.01).
The effect of ageing on the dry matter ratio of nests (N = 7) made by females in Experiment
2. The value for each nest is an average from microscopic observation of 10 subsamples per nest.
Different letters above the columns indicate signiﬁcant differences in post hoc Dunn test
(alpha = 0.05)
following Friedman nonparametric ANOVA for repeated measures.
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915 6 of 10
3.3. Experiment 3
The does preferred long over short grass when collecting nest material (Wilcoxon
matched-pairs signed-ranks test: W = 24, p< 0.05). (Figure 3). The grass length only
marginally affected the eating (Wilcoxon test: W = 19, p= 0.06). The occurrence of eating
grass was generally low (3.5%) similarly to the dry grass eating in the previous experiment.
This was probably due to the lack of the green material shown to be preferred for eating.
Similar to the previous experiment, the does spent a lot of time (29% vs. 31%) in the
The relative percentage of time spent in collecting from either long (30 cm) or short (10 cm)
grass by rabbit females (N = 7). Asterisks indicate signiﬁcant differences (p< 0.05) in Wilcoxon
matched-pairs signed-ranks tests.
We aimed to study the main features of nest composition of wild rabbits and to test
if such features are still preferred in naïve domestic does. The European rabbit is an
especially useful mammalian model for studying maternal behaviour [
] as both wild
animals and domestic stocks are available, and the domestication of this species has not
dramatically changed the features of maternal behaviour [
]. A well-constructed
nest may increase the survival of the offspring and provide long-term beneﬁts to the mother
in the wild but is seemingly less important under controlled laboratory settings [
Remarkable specialization in the physiological mechanisms underlying the above reactions
is known for this species [
]. Mimicking the ancestral situation in the rearing is still
plausible  and can improve the welfare status of rabbits .
The worldwide distribution of rabbits [
] indicates that it is an adaptable species with
high phenotypic plasticity enabling it to cope with the challenges in various local habitats.
As the vegetation is completely different in the several continents the rabbit inhabits today,
both food and nest material choice should be ﬂexible. Diet composition of these animals
should change both locally and seasonally [
] to follow food availability. Laboratory
data show that the food preferences are ﬁne-tuned by both individual learning and social
impacts on diet choice [
] fulﬁlling the dietary needs of rabbits. Lagomorphs prefer grass
species as food wherever these are available [
], but grass is also used for nest building,
even by domestic females observed in semi-natural habitats [
]. The high percent of dry
grass found in the ﬁeld nests could have been explained by the ageing of the material, as
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915 7 of 10
we have probably found the nests already empty thus being at least 21 days old, when the
doe leaves the entrance open and the kits hide outside [
]. Our repeated tests performed
mimicking natural conditions indicate that even though there was a signiﬁcant increase in
dry grass scores (see Figure 2), its small dimension suggests that the nests collected in the
ﬁeld should have been predominantly dry at the time of construction.
We have found a remarkably small variation in the composition of both the wild rabbit
nests and the laboratory constructed nests suggesting that rabbit nest building is a result
of tightly controlled mechanisms [
]. While our tests were restricted to the beginning
of the nest building, and the plant components are usually collected during several days
preceding the parturition [
], we were able to demonstrate that even the initial plant
choice indicates clear preferences toward features present in wild rabbit nests. In order to
judge the preference in the two-way choice tests, we reduced the time available for nest
material collection to one hour as initial observation indicated this period is enough for the
does to reduce one bunch of material to minimum. Extending the test period might have
resulted in also collecting the inferior material, even though the offered amount of grass
was enough to construct a full nest. It would be interesting to follow the process during the
several days preceding parturition .
The result of Experiment 2 is in accordance with the hypothesis that rabbit does can
modify the nest composition by eating out some of the grass disproportionally, as the slight
preference to dry grass in the collection phase was found to be signiﬁcantly enhanced
in the ﬁnal nest composition. Nevertheless, there are other possible explanations of this
increase in the dry grass ratio, for example, the time spent collecting is not a reliable
measurement of the amount actually collected. The fact that the ratio of dry grass in the
nests of inexperienced domestic females closely resembles the ratio found in wild rabbit
nests and its very low (4 percent) standard error suggest that domestication had no major
impact on this characteristic. Preference for a given dryness can be functional as nests of
Mongolian gerbils and hay piles of the pika [
] or ground squirrel nests [
] were also
found to be invariant in their ratio of dry material content. Thus, our ﬁrst experiment
supports the idea that both domestic and wild rabbits prefer dry grass for nest building
and can inﬂuence their nest composition in different phases of the construction.
Based on the Experiment 3, the preference for long grass seems quite functional as
the females can more easily (and quickly) collect the long leaves than the same amount of
short grass and the long grass can be more easily structured than the short leaves
Cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus ﬂoridanus) females were also seen collecting dry long grass and
forming an outer grass layer lining the excavated nest cavity [
]. In Blumetto et al. [
studies, mother rabbits preferred straw to wood chips as a nesting material, and elongated
dry material was also preferred in a highly inbred rabbit stock [
]. The functional sig-
niﬁcance of using dry grass as nest material is not yet fully understood, heat insulation
] or/and its high capacity to bind water [
] are likely candidate features
enhancing the survival of wild rabbit kits developing in a closed underground chamber for
]. Even though it might be problematic to incorporate hay as a nest material in
rabbit production systems [
] as fungal toxins can induce health issues [
], the welfare
status can be improved by mimicking natural situations in the rearing environment [
In summary, by performing laboratory experiments to understand the functional
signiﬁcance of the preference of wild rabbits for dry elongated grass nest material we found
that, similarly to their wild ancestors, even unexperienced domestic rabbit females collect
dry and long grass preferentially. The even larger proportion of dry grass found in the ﬁnal
nests and occasional observations of the does in the nest chamber suggest a modiﬁcation
of the nest composition after the collection phase by eating some of the green grass (see
Experiment 2 and 3), and thus the ﬁnal composition of the nests was strikingly uniform and
similar to the composition of the nests found in the ﬁeld and made by the wild ancestors. It
is important to emphasize that we tested naïve primiparous domestic does without any
previous experience with the nest materials, and our observation focussed on the very
ﬁrst efforts in the nest construction, which is not affected by the does learning processes
Appl. Sci. 2022,12, 1915 8 of 10
in handling or eating grasses Even though there has been some changes in the genetic
background in the nest building behaviour due to domestication [
], the basic features
of choosing the appropriate nest material seem to remain rather conservative. Thus, we
recommend providing uncut hay as a nest material in the rabbit production as it seems to
fulﬁl the basic needs of this domesticated animal.
Conceptualization, V.A. and Á.B.; methodology, V.A.; software, I.N.; vali-
dation, B.B., I.N. and V.A.; formal analysis, I.N.; investigation, B.B.; resources, I.P.; data curation,
B.B.; writing—original draft preparation, Á.B. and B.B.; writing—review and editing, Á.B. and B.B.;
I.N. visualization, B.B.; supervision, V.A.; project administration, B.B.; funding acquisition, B.B.
All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.
The work/publication is supported by the EFOP-3.6.3-VEKOP-16-2017-00005 project. The
project is co-ﬁnanced by the European Union and the European Social Fund.
Institutional Review Board Statement:
This research was approved by the Committee on the Ethics
of Animal Experiments of Eötvös University (permit number: XIV-I-001/532-4/2012). The authors
declare that all experiments were performed in accordance with approved guidelines and regulations.
Informed Consent Statement: Not applicable.
Data Availability Statement:
The data presented in this study are available on request from the
Conﬂicts of Interest: There was no conﬂict of interest among authors.
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