Nature Notes: Raccoon
The settlement of America and the huge population growth of the last 150 years has resulted in significant impacts on most wildlife species. In some of mankind’s worst moments, we caused the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and nearly wiped out the American bison. In other cases, our actions have allowed species to expand their territories with negative consequences – for example, the introduction of rabbits to Australia where they had no natural predators. The subject animal of this month’s article has repeatedly been impacted by humans, and has always adapted to its new reality.
The raccoon, native to North American, was long a creature of mixed forest areas, but over time they were displaced into mountainous regions and coastal marshes. More recently, raccoons discovered that urban areas offer food and shelter, to the chagrin of homeowners facing unwanted attic dwellers and garbage can raiders. As a result of escapes and ill-considered introductions, raccoons can now be found across Europe, western Asia and Japan. Wherever it lives, the raccoon is an intelligent hustler, able to adjust its behavior to the situation at hand in order to survive.
The first European settlers found that Native Americans were well acquainted with the raccoon, known in the Algonquin language as “ahrah-koon-em.” Many tribes, including the Sioux, felt the clever raccoon embodied wisdom or spirit powers, allowing it to outwit larger animals such as coyotes or wolves. The Europeans were unsure of the raccoon’s place in the wild kingdom, speculating that it might be related to bears, dogs or badgers. They made special note of the raccoon’s habit of rubbing food items with its front feet and immersing things in water when available.
Native American tribes and settlers used raccoon pelts for winter clothing, and the tail was popular for ornamentation (later carried over to car antennas and rearview mirrors). In the 1920’s, as the automobile became more popular, raccoon coats were all the rage for staying warm on the road, and looking sharp on college campuses. Growing up, I was a big fan of the rangy actor Fess Parker, who played frontiersman Davy Crockett in a popular television series – many young boys wore a coonskin cap on our outdoor adventures to emulate our hero. By 1987, the raccoon was the most important wild furbearer in the US, with annual harvests up to 5 million animals. But when the demand for fur coats plummeted in the 1990’s, the population of raccoons and other canids soared. In a few years, the rabies virus soon spread to areas previously free of the disease and millions of animals died.
An adult raccoon can exceed 20 inches long, not counting its bushy, ringed tail which can exceed 12”. A large male averages 20 – 30 pounds, although the largest recorded male weighed more than 62 pounds, a formidable creature. The raccoon is not built for speed, having short front legs, long hind legs and an amusing pigeon towed walk. They are equipped with sharp claws for climbing trees, foraging or self-defense. The body is covered with long guard hairs in various shades of brown, black and gray, combined with dense underfur that made the raccoon a prize for pioneer fur trappers. With a light grey muzzle and black nose, the raccoon is readily identifiable by a “mask” of black fur around dark eyes.
While a raccoon has excellent hearing and vision, a raccoon’s front feet are particularly sensitive and they use touch to find and evaluate potential food items. This is particularly useful since they are most active at night, and they enjoy food items caught in ponds or wetlands. When I was a boy, we had two pet raccoons for a few months and we delighted in watching them eat – we hid crackers or nuts in our pockets so the raccoons could tickle us with their feet while digging for their treats. Unfortunately, one night they used their clever feet to pick the lock on their cage and made their escape (please note that keeping wild raccoons now requires a permit).
The raccoon is an opportunistic and aggressive feeder, and their diet varies over the course of the year. They consume insects, worms, and centipedes, and are equally happy to eat small mammals, fish, shellfish, snakes and frogs. Bird lovers might wish the raccoon was less capable of raiding nests for eggs and chicks. In late summer, high energy fruits, acorns, and seeds help the raccoon pack on the fat layer that will sustain them during winter months. During winter thaws I have seen raccoons leave their dens in midday to reach standing corn for a much needed snack. One night many years ago while canoeing in NY’s Adirondack Park, we awoke in our lean to with 3 hungry raccoons pawing at our backpacks!
Raccoons do not hibernate in winter, but they sleep/rest through cold stretches, taking shelter in hollow trees, ground dens, caves or your barn. In late winter, they locate willing mates for breeding. After a gestation period of 60 – 70 days, the female delivers her litter of 2 – 5 babies in the spring. These kits, blind and deaf at birth, are dependent upon their mother for about 2 months, and will become independent during their first autumn. Raccoons have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity, but more typically live 2 – 5 years in the wild.
It is tempting to think that raccoons are cute and cuddly animals, but they can be fierce when threatened or cornered. Foolish dogs are quite likely to come away from an encounter with a raccoon with serious wounds, thanks to the coon’s sharp canine teeth and powerful jaws. Raccoons are prone to distemper, tularemia and roundworms. Vehicles kill many raccoons, along with predators such as bobcats, owls, and coyotes. It’s best to enjoy raccoons from a distance, and take steps to secure your house and garbage cans from these clever survivors!