Where have all the rabbits gone?

Zeus the wonder dog scared up a rabbit near the house the other day.

Go ahead and mock me for mentioning it, but in the rabbit department, that's big news.

Because in our suburban village, out on the western rind of Cook County, I haven't seen more than one or two rabbits in months.

Just a few years ago, there were fat herds of rabbits, brazenly grazing on the suburban front lawns like the bison of old. In winter, I'd see their tracks in the snow and get hungry for rabbit stew, the kind with pearl onions and tomato, a stew requiring good crusty peasant bread for that tasty sauce.

Now, though, you can hardly find a rabbit. They're almost as scarce as conservative Democrats.

I figured it was the coyotes.

Unfortunately, the wildlife I pay most of my attention to are two-legged rodents, those rodents that hide their tails under fine suits, fine hunters that feed their young on public contracts and your taxes.

But I'll tell you a secret, if you promise to keep it just between us: I've always been fascinated with critters, ever since I was about 9 or 10 and opened a book called "My Side of the Mountain" by Jean Craighead George.

It is about a boy named Sam who lived in a hollowed-out tree and his pet peregrine falcon named Frightful. Since then, I've always wanted to hunt with a falcon. Sam followed the critters, too, and he made notes.

I don't make notes, but I try to notice — like that red hawk in the big tree near the baseball diamonds. And the red fox gliding on the edge of the parkway down the block.

Wherever you live, you might notice those dark shadows within shadows on the lawns at night. They're larger than foxes, just faint outlines of doglike shapes that fade as you turn your head to study them.

So on Tuesday over the phone I caught up with Chris Anchor, chief wildlife biologist for the Cook County government. He was busy driving back from Freeport with a dead female timber wolf in his truck. He pulled over and we talked.

"She came down from Wisconsin, she had a (radio) collar on, and we were asked to help track her," Anchor said of the wolf. "She came down independently. She wasn't with a pack. She came looking for space and a mate and food. We won't know much really until we do the genetics. She was dead when we found her. It's pretty exciting, though."

He explained that timber wolves have little if any habitat left to them in Wisconsin, and this one desperately drifted south. I just knew he'd have already measured her and checked her teeth, and it was so. The female wolf weighed about 65 pounds.

"She's about 3 years old, in fine shape," he said. "We're taking her to the pathologists for further study. She looks relatively healthy. They're equipped to eat deer and rabbits. But wolves need space. They're not coyotes."

It was the coyotes that I wondered about, those dark shadows inside the shadows cast by streetlights. Some of the decline in rabbit populations in Cook County can be directly attributed to the fact that coyotes and red foxes find them so tasty.

"Coyotes will go anywhere and take anything," he said. "Rats and rabbits in the city, even dead fish on Navy Pier. They take whatever they can get."

There are differences emerging between suburban and city coyotes, he said.

"As the coyotes get more urban, their home ranges decrease, but their population density actually increases," Anchor said. "It sounds counterintuitive. But there it is. There's more food."

But, Anchor said, "there's another thing that knocked down the rabbit population this year. The most dramatic thing. After last year's drought, it started."