by Bob Tuck
Late at night, as you drive through your neighborhood at the end of a long day, you may spot a brownish animal as it scurries across the street. Or maybe you look out your living room window and see several dark shapes moving across your lawn in the moonlight. Not to mention that the dog food you leave out overnight keeps disappearing. After a while, you begin to realize that you have elusive neighbors, complete with black mask.
Perhaps no other mammal in North America is more widely recognized than the raccoon (Procyon lotor). The shuffling brown and grey animal with the black mask and black rings on its tail is distributed across the continent from southern Canada south to Panama. Originally inhabiting forests, particularly along streams and rivers (primarily in eastern North America), the raccoon has greatly expanded its range over the past century. In addition to expanding its range, it has found urban and suburban areas much to its liking—so much so that cities and towns support large raccoon populations. As a result, the present raccoon population may be 10-20 times larger than it was 70 or 80 years ago.
An adult raccoon weighs from 12 to over 30 pounds and has a total length of approximately 2-3 feet, including a tail that may measure up to 15 inches. Where available, raccoons prefer a den in a hollow tree or log, but spaces under buildings, in attics, or other protected areas are more than acceptable to this adaptable species.
Raccoons are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plant and animal matter. Their broad diet is another reason that they have adapted so well to human landscapes—they’ll eat anything. Nuts, fruit, berries, rodents, bird eggs, fish, crayfish, frogs, insects, snails, clams, and worms are all on the menu. In the summer and fall, they will invite themselves into your garden and dine on corn, watermelon, peas, pumpkins, grapes, and other tasty fare. Ditto with any dog or cat food that you leave out. And that left over casserole you put in the garbage can—dinner for five, corner table.
Raccoons have an extremely well developed sense of touch. They are constantly examining objects with their front paws, especially when they are searching for food. Raccoons often hunt for food along rivers or streams. When they capture a prospective food item, a crayfish, for example, they examine it carefully with their sensitive paws, often underwater, or submerging it several times as they use their extraordinary tactile sense. This behavior is called “dousing,” and gives the appearance that it is “washing” the food item. This behavior resulted in part of the raccoon’s scientific name. “Lotor” is a Latin derivative that means “washer.”
In the spring, female raccoons produce a litter of 2-7 young; three or four is the usual number. When the young are about two months old, they begin to accompany their mother on nightly forays to locate food. Young raccoons may stay with their mother until the following spring, when they set out to seek their own territories.
As with all wildlife, raccoons should not be molested or harassed. If you see one, or a female with young, give them room to go about their business. If a raccoon is causing problems or has become a nuisance, call the local office of your state fish and wildlife agency.
Raccoons are fascinating animals, so enjoy the occasional sighting of these elusive neighbors with the black mask.
- Raccoon Nation-PBS Nature
- National Geographic-Raccoon
- WDFW-Living with Wildlife-Raccoon
- University of Michigan-Bio Kids-Raccoon