Bunnies v Bilbies

Apr 08, 2022

This image is from the Australian Museum, where you can find some teaching materials.

The Bilby is a native Australian animal sometimes called a rabbit-bandicoot because it has a long nose like a bandicoot and big ears like a rabbit. It is for this reason that some Australians consider replacing the Easter Bunny with an Easter Bilby. But why would you want to exchange a cute bunny with a sharp featured creature like the bilby? How might this look in graphic advertisements? Have you even heard of a bilby? He’s rare, he’s unique and he’s endangered.

Easter Bunny

At Easter time, children all round the world get excited about the imminent arrival of Easter Bunny. Bunnies are seen as soft, cuddly toys and pets. If you search Artventure for Bunny, Rabbit or Egg you’ll find some lessons that could help with drawing ideas. A previous blog ‘Easter Art’ has more arty ideas. I rather like Peter Rabbit and talked more about his creation as an illustration by Beatrix Potter, in my blog, 'Drawing on Farm Life’. There are also other famous rabbits in art like Walt Disney’s Bugs Bunny, and A A Milne’s Rabbit, friend to Winnie the Pooh.

Rabbits arrive in Australia

There is, however, the other side to this story: the arrival of rabbits in Australia. In the early days of white settlement in this country, rabbits were brought by ship and used mainly as an easy source of food, and also for the warmth of their fur. Unfortunately they did not stay contained and when they started roaming the countryside, multiplying rapidly in numbers, building extensive networks of underground warrens, they became a pest. They competed with native animals for vegetation to eat. Their burrows created huge environmental issues and damaged habits. 

Various methods have been used over time to reduce the numbers of rabbits and to some extent this has been successful. However, wild rabbits still present a problem for our native wildlife, as well as our farmers.  

So let’s consider the bilby…

The bilby is a mammal like the rabbit with the female of both having mammary glands to feed their babies milk. However, the bilby is a marsupial with a pouch into which live young are born but not ready to survive in the outside world. They continue to grow inside the pouch until developed enough to venture out. On the other hand, rabbits have live young born like other mammals, needing their mother’s milk but independent from her.

Bilbies burrow like rabbits but have much stronger front claws. They have a much longer snout, with an acute sense of smell, and a long tongue to forage for food. They don’t need to drink water like other animals because they source this from the food they eat, like fruit, bulbs, seeds, insects, and other small animals. Their large ears radiate heat which helps regulate their body temperature. These big ears also increase their sense of hearing. Bilbies are nocturnal animals with poor eyesight so these other features help them survive.  

As they dig for food the bilbies help aerate the soil and create a natural composting system. Unlike rabbits whose burrowing erodes away the landscape, the bilbies’ burrows are full of composting plant material and germinating seeds - gaining them the reputation as ecosystem engineers. They are a benefit to our environment.

Sadly the bilby is an endangered species. Much of this is due to the introduction of other animals to Australia: the cat and the fox. Feral cats and foxes prey on bilbies and have greatly reduced their numbers. Habitat destruction and urban development have also contributed.  

Balancing Bilbies and Bunnies

So Easter can be a time to help raise awareness of the plight of the bilby. Not everything needs to be about bunnies. Bilby stories, books, toys, chocolates… Haigh’s chocolates has partnered with the Foundation for Rabbit Free Australia since 1991 to draw attention to the damage done by rabbit populations, and the plight of the bilby.

Let’s try creating artwork that depicts the bilby rather than the bunny. Through drawing, children learn more about the features of an animal. Maybe drawings could humanise a bilby like for Peter Rabbit with his little blue jacket. The bilby might wear a singlet top for the heat and a bush hat with a wide brim and suspended corks attached bobbing in the breeze to keep the Aussie flies away. His Easter eggs might be carried in a portable cooler or ice box! 

I still like the cute pet rabbits and the fun kids have with the Easter Bunny concept but at the same time it’s good to raise their awareness of the little Aussie battler, the Bilby.  

Erica
Teacher and Artventure Blogger