Door to Nature: Raccoons on the Move

There is a wild animal, described as being a generalist with a cast iron stomach, that is here to stay, primarily because it has become so highly adaptive to humans. In fact, it is thought to be an excellent example of a synanthrope, an animal able or even preferring, to live with humans. One look at its black “bandit” mask and ringed tail immediately identifies it as a raccoon.

On a recent drive to Egg Harbor I saw a dead raccoon on the road. I stopped to photograph it, determine its sex and then move it onto the shoulder so it was out of the way of other vehicles. I found it to be a very large, heavy female that was difficult to push to the side with the sturdy stick I had in my car.

My resource book says their weight can range from 12 to 25 pounds. This one seemed to be near 25 pounds and I wondered if she was pregnant. They do not hibernate but spend more time in their dens during harsh winters. This season, being as mild as it, will bring these nocturnal animals out more often in search of food.

The scientific name, Procyon (PRO-see-on) lotor (LOW-tor), is interesting in that Procyon is the name of the Dog Star, but is derived from the family of raccoons, coatis and allies – Procyonidae. The species name, lotor, refers to the habit of washing. In spite of the belief that a raccoon always washes its food before eating it, scientists think they merely like to feel their food underwater.

Having such dexterous, almost human-like fingers and a highly developed sense of touch, it is thought that they have somewhat of an obsession for handling their food before consuming it. Many raccoons eat much of their food considerable distances from the nearest body of water or birdbath.

They range throughout much of the Americas but are less common in the Great Basin and the northern Rocky Mountains. The largest are found in the northern and eastern part of the United States and the smallest version lives in the Florida Keys.

Mating season in our area is February and the young are born nine weeks later. Males are polygamous but a female will choose just one male each mating season. Knowing this, I do believe the dead one I found on Feb. 24th was probably carrying young.

You can see how the large rear foot of the raccoon sits flat on the ground.

I remember, perhaps 20 years ago, when Roy and I were singing in a combined choir and had returned home from a rehearsal on a cold December night. As we drove into our front yard the headlights revealed a large raccoon scampering from the bird feeders up the bank and around the side of our house. It was 17 degrees out and the snow cover was substantial, but apparently this animal was hungry enough to venture out of its den.

Most wooded campground owners in the Midwest have learned through experience that either the garbage cans must be very securely fastened or they will be rattling throughout the night. Few nocturnal mammals have triggered more human-animal conflicts around homes and buildings than these dexterous, inquisitive creatures.

In the early 1990s our unfenced garden became the nighttime target of one or more families of raccoons. It seemed that they destroyed several times more sweet corn than they consumed. We couldn’t help but believe that they would carefully peel back the husks, take a bite or two of the kernels to test them for that perfect sweetness and, if they didn’t qualify, go on to the next stalk.

Finally we constructed a 76-inch-high, 320-foot-long fence around the entire garden. Fortunately, it kept the deer, cottontails and raccoons on the outside.

Raccoon dens can be found in attics, chimneys, crawlspaces, outbuildings, beneath porches, large brush piles, old woodchuck holes, hollow trees and storm sewers. Roy had a challenging experience in the spring of 1988 at the Ridges Range Light residence. The building was winterized and closed until spring and the plumbers who came to turn on the water told Roy they would not do anything until he got rid of the raccoons in the basement.

Not having been in the basement since the previous fall, this was bad news for Roy. Sure enough, their growling chatter between the basement ceiling and the kitchen floor revealed the female had come down the tall chimney and found a very suitable nursery in which to bear and raise her young.

The problem was how to get them out of the house alive. Fortunately a friend had a similar experience with these inquisitive omnivores in the past, and his solution was given to Roy in one word – ammonia!

Two aluminum pie pans and a couple of old rags soaked in ammonia were placed in the false ceiling where the raccoons were lodged and by the next morning they had retreated back up the chimney. The mama raccoon had to shinny up the 40-foot-tall structure carrying one baby at a time but she made it and a screen guard was then secured to the top of the chimney to prevent future invasions.

Fortunately these nighttime raiders of improperly covered garbage cans devour a multitude of harmful insects and are listed as being economically beneficial to people. Even though they are omnivorous, they are known to consume more plant material, especially wild fruits, than animal matter. In examining their diet, one can come to the conclusion that they eat as much a variety of foods as do humans.

Their top three choices in our region are corn, fruit and acorns. In addition, they relish turtle eggs, frogs, toads, earthworms, grubs, mice, rabbits, crayfish and muskrats, to name only a few. Tomatoes and muskmelons also rank high on their list of preferences.

They are plantigrade walkers like their cousins, the black bears, and walk with their entire foot flat on the ground, just as we do. If a complete footprint of a large mature raccoon can be located in good tracking mud, you can expect the rear footprint to be a little more than four inches long.

Springtime is near and vegetable seeds are being ordered for the upcoming growing season. Use your ingenuity when it comes to protecting your garden melons, sweet corn and tomatoes from these gleaners-in-the-night. Put yourself in their mask and remember that they don’t have a grocery store at which to shop for most of their food as we do!

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