The cottontail took off, but the caramel stayed around and let me come much closer to it than before. In fact, it came towards me a couple of times, as if considering whether to come in from the cold. I have very mixed feelings about this situation, but have decided that if the bunny asks for refuge I'll provide it somehow. If it doesn't, e.g., doesn't let me touch it, doesn't follow me home, or give some other clear signal, I won't try to force the issue. It gave no clear signal, and after a little while we went our separate ways.
Friday I saw it again, and again it was with a cottontail. On this occasion it didn't show as much interest in me as it had before, though also not much fear. This encounter took place at the north end of the area I call "the scrape," in honour of the topsoil harvest that has taken place there, leaving the ground bare for the first season, and starting to green up in the second (i.e., now). As they did last year, killdeers are raising young here--chicks are downless and growing fast--so killdeers were calling and displaying the whole time I spent with the bunny. The bunny took no notice, so I tried to do the same, though I did try to always move away from the chicks when I wasn't standing still. (This is complicated by the fact that this year there is a second killdeer family at the south end of the scrape, so as one set of parents calms down the other starts up--I don't know yet whether the second family is at the nesting or the chick stage, or where the nest or chicks are, so I have no way of passing by yet avoiding their area of concern.)
Here's the mystery. It's pretty clear now that the caramel bunny is hanging out with one or more eastern cottontail rabbits, described as: "a nocturnal creature which leads a solitary lifestyle. It is estimated each eastern cottontail requires up to three hectares of its own." (Canadian Biodiversity Eastern Cottontail page) At this page I found, mention is made of the occasional frolicking together of eastern cottontails, something I've read about elsewhere. This past winter I observed as many as four rabbits at a time under the birdfeeders (a first for me). Last summer I saw a family, what looked like a doe and a number of quite small young, playing around in the driveway down into the scrape.
Domestic rabbits are descendants of the European rabbit (Orychtolagus cuniculus), which is a social species. So I can understand the caramel bunny wanting to hang out with other rabbits. The mystery is why the others want to hang out with it. One macabre possiblity (which may assume more imagination on the part of the cottontails than is strictly warranted) is suggested by the old joke that when you're being chased by a bear don't worry about being able to outrun it (you won't), just worry about outrunning the person you're with.
More likely though is that cottontails are social in ways that aren't well studied. There is a tendency to divide animals into social and solitary species, rather than to appreciate a continuum or wider diversity of styles of sociability. Looked at from one fundamental perspective, all mammals are social species--all mammals spend at least some time in a social group: mother and offspring.
Human beings are, of course, a social species--inclined by nature to form attachments. The first time I saw this rabbit I thought I was hallucinating...it left the yard and I didn't see it again for quite a while. Now I've seen it four more times, talked to it, sat around with it a little--started to form a connection. The Canadian Biodiversity cottontail page makes this point about rabbits:
These animals serve a vital function in the environment...they convert plant material into meat....I have found countless remains of predated rabbits in the fields--which is a good thing, rabbits reproduce so prodigiously that I wouldn't be able to walk back there for all the rabbits if no one was eating them. But now that I know this bunny, I don't want it to be eaten. As I say above, I have very mixed feelings about this. It's a rabbit, rabbits are food in these fields. It's not a wild rabbit, so either it shouldn't be there at all (should be eaten quickly), or it should be rescued. Why would I only rescue it if it asks? My inclination, personal and philosophical, is to let nature take its course--even in not-quite-natural situations such as this one. But there could be tears.
To learn more about rabbits, and who wouldn't want to, check out The most freaky of all mammals: rabbits at Tetrapod Zoology.