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April 2, 2010

In Central Park, where goes Peter Cottontail?

NEW YORK — If anyone knows why the bunnies have disappeared from Central Park, wildlife officials are all ears.

Though abandoned pet rabbits perennially turn up after each Easter in what's affectionately called New York's backyard, a wild cottontail hasn't been spotted in the park for about four years.

"I've been here for 17 years, and there were not many when I got here," Regina Alvarez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that manages the huge Manhattan park for the city, said in an e-mail. "But I would see them once in a while."

No other New York park has seen a decline in wild rabbits, said Sarah Aucoin, director of Urban Park Rangers for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

Cottontails seek habitats with lots of food sources and thick brush for protection, so it's possible there are still some hiding out. No one introduced the rabbits, which have been living there since well before the park was established 161 years ago.

Because bunnies "mate like rabbits," if there are still a few, "we'll see an increase, definitely," Aucoin said. "Only time will tell."

The bunnies are especially vulnerable to weather, predators and automobiles — all features of the park, said Alan Hicks, a state wildlife biologist.

A recent storm took out large trees throughout the park, and several city streets cut through it. Hawks and falcons are a common sight there, and a random coyote is not out of the question. One was spotted in the park in 2006.

But Aucoin said she didn't think an increase in predators was to blame, because they generally don't decimate their own food source, she said.

"That's not smart, evolutionarily speaking," she said. "That predator population would die off if they didn't have anything to eat."

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