I've discovered why commercial rabbit farmers are failing so badly at getting one of the world's most fecund species to reproduce. Should I tell them? "Pssssst! Guess what farmers? Rabbits figured out how to do it millenia ago... And they're willing to tell you, if only you'd look and listen!"
This is actually also what my rabbits taught me about feeding. I've read horror story after horror story about rabbits starving to death rather than adapting to a new feed, or developing the runs and scouring to death. And I've fed my rabbits whatever green feed is to hand, three different types of baled hay, pellets from three different manufacturers, and fruit and vegetable scraps from the local Local Fruit & Veg markets, and bread, crackers, and leaves flowers and branches of a range of trees and shrubs.
Guess what? Rabbits fed themselves for a long long long time and they obviously managed to get it right. I watched mine, and let them teach me. What's the secret to these happy panavore rabbits? Well, for a starters, it's the way I saw them approach a new plant or feed when I let them wander around the garden. They will check a new plant out, sniff it, then wander off for a while. If the sniff didn't make them ill, they go back and take a few mouthfuls, and wander off again.
The seemingly random behaviour, isn't. If they still aren't sick after a while, they go back and eat a bit more. Then they leave it alone again for a while, and I believe that they spend the time trying to figure out if this plant had any beneficial effect on them. The thing is, after that it becomes part of a whole rabbit conversation. That too I've noticed, that rabbits teach each other, as well. And the way the do it seemed a bit alien to me at first, but now I think about it, it makes perfect sense. A lot of rabbit dialogue occurs in the form of fecal pellets.
The little balls of dry poo that rabbits drop serve a few purposes. And in this case, they "inoculate" the other rabbits in th herd into tolerating the new plant, in effect teaching the others in the herd about this new food source.
See, with rabbits, (some of you may know part of this - please bear with me - there's a bit more) there are two types of poo. The most important one is the cecal pellet, which is a mucus-covered "bunch of grapes" which you'll rarely see, because the rabbit re-ingests it right away. The reason is at least twofold. One, the rabbit has no second stomach like cows and ruminants, so this is a way of re-digesting the cud, as it were. Two, the bacteria in a rabbit's gut need to be "topped up" regularly. And these bacteria are also somewhat tailored to the type of feed the rabbit is eating. Third use for these cecal pellets is to inoculate the young kittens with the right bacteria to be able to digest and absorb solid feed.
Rabbit kittens are not born with these gut bacteria, the doe drops cecal pellets outside the burrow so that when the kittens are old enough to venture outside and nibble at the world out there, they will find these pellets. "Hmmm" says the kitten, "These things smell like mum. Mum's been a food source for me before." In effect, the doe is indoctrinating the kittens with "local knowledge" and equipping them to cope with local food.
The dry pellets are true manure, but if you watch your rabbit you'll see it re-ingest some of these dry balls. In fact, you'll see rabbits seemingly randomly pick up anyone's fecal pellet and eat it. And apparently that's another conversation in itself. Because, that seems to be how they find out about new foods and plants in their range.
And I believe that's why my rabbits are such panavores, able to tolerate such a wide range of foods. Because even though I don't have them all in a common hutch, I do let them out for runs in a large common area. And when Peta is running around, she's dropping pellets carrying her food tolerances. When Eddie goes for his run, he picks up on that and then his gut is inoculated for that food, too. Then the kittens get a run, and they get both parents' bacteria. And the next day, I might start the day with the kittens and then Eddie and then Peta.
And you know what? I wish I could take credit for this, but a damn rabbit taught it to me...