The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is a medium sized mammal, native to North America. They are highly intelligent creatures, that can become a nuisance to any homeowner. It is the largest of the procynoid family and its most distinctive two features are its extremely dexterous front paws and its facial mask. The raccoon has an omnivorous diet, consisting of about 40% invertebrates, 33% plant foods, and 27% vertebrates, and it is a nocturnal animal with a high level of adaptability to different environments, as they have extended their range to mountainous areas, coastal marshes, and urban areas, where some homeowners consider them to be pests. As of 2005, 25 species are recognized, out of which, four can only be found on small Central American and Caribbean islands. The two most widespread subspecies are the eastern raccoon (Procyon lotor lotor) and the Upper Mississippi Valley raccoon (Procyon lotor hirtus). Both share a comparatively dark coat with long hairs, but the Upper Mississippi Valley raccoon is larger than the eastern raccoon. The eastern raccoon occurs in all U.S. states and Canadian provinces to the north of South Carolina and Tennessee. The adjacent range of the Upper Mississippi Valley raccoon covers all U.S. states and Canadian provinces to the north of Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico.
Though previously thought to be solitary, there is now evidence that raccoons engage in gender-specific social behavior. Related females often share a common area, while unrelated males live together in groups of up to four animals to maintain their positions against foreign males during the mating season, or other potential invaders.
Description and distribution of the raccoons
An average raccoon measures between 40 and 60 cm (16 and 28 in), without including their bushy tail, which can measure an extra 20 and 40 cm (8 and 16 in). Their body weight, can however vary from 2 to 14 kg (4 to 39 lb), depending on the habitat they live in. This thus makes the raccoon one of the most variably sized mammals. The smallest specimens are found in southern Florida, while those near the northern limits of the raccoon’s range tend to be the largest. Males are usually 15 to 20% heavier than females. At the beginning of winter, a raccoon can weigh twice as much as in spring because of the fat he stores over the winter.
One of their most characteristic feature is the area of black fur around their eyes, which highly contrasts with the rest of their fur. Due to this similarity to a bandit’s mask, the animal’s reputation for mischief has been enhanced over the time. They are also known to recognize the facial expression and posture of other members of their species more quickly because of the conspicuous facial coloration and the alternating light and dark rings on the tail. Their dark mask can also help reduce glare and improve night vision, raccoons being nocturnal animals.
They can stand on their hind legs to examine objects with their front paws, which comes in handy, as they can easily adapt to other environments by further examining them. they are not able to run quickly or jump long distances, however, they are good climbers, and are able to swim at an average speed of 5 km/h (3 mph) and can stay in the water for several hours.
Their most important sense it that of touch, as they have hyper sensitive front paws, which also give them the ability identify objects before touching them with vibrissae located above their sharp, non-retractable claws. Raccoons are also considered to be very clever, as they are able to understand the abstract principles of locking mechanisms and they can remember the solutions to tasks for up to three years.
Raccoons are natively found throughout most of North America. Recently, however they have recently emerged in parts of Europe and Japan as well. Whether they escaped, or were deliberate introduced in the mid-20th century, raccoons can now be found in countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain, but also Belarus or Azerbaijan. Over 1,500 raccoons were imported in Japan as pets, each year, after the success of the anime series Rascal the Raccoon.
Due to its adaptability, the raccoon has been able to use urban areas as a habitat. The first sightings were recorded in a suburb of Cincinnati in the 1920s. Since the 1950s, raccoons have been present in metropolitan areas like Washington, DC, Chicago, and Toronto. They are very adaptable, so they live in a wide range of climates and habitats.
They typically make homes, called dens, in trees or caves, though they will also make homes in barns, abandoned vehicles and other man-made locations. In small towns and suburbs, many raccoons sleep in a nearby forest after foraging in the settlement area. Fruit and insects in gardens and leftovers in municipal waste are easily available food sources. Furthermore, a large number of additional sleeping areas exist in these areas, such as hollows in old garden trees, cottages, garages, abandoned houses, and attics. The percentage of urban raccoons sleeping in abandoned or occupied houses varies from 15% in Washington, DC (1991) to 43% in Kassel, Germany (2003).
Breeding and dietary information about the raccoons
Raccoons usually mate in a period triggered by increasing daylight between late January and mid-March. During the mating season, males restlessly roam their home ranges in search of females in an attempt to court them during the three- to four-day period when conception is possible. After copulation and a gestation period of 63 – 65 days, a litter of two is typically born. Larger litters are more common in areas with a high mortality rate, due, for example, to hunting or severe winters. The kits, also called cubs, are born blind and deaf, and start to consume solid food only after six to nine weeks, and are weaned by 16 weeks. In the fall, after their mother has shown them dens and feeding grounds, the juvenile group splits up. While many females will stay close to the home range of their mother, males can sometimes move more than 20 km (12 mi) away. This is considered an instinctive behavior, preventing inbreeding. However, mother and offspring may share a den during the first winter in cold areas.
A raccoon’s life expectancy is more 2 – 3 years, while captive raccoons can live up to 20 years. Younglings are vulnerable to losing their mother and to starvation, particularly in long and cold winters. However, the most frequent natural cause of death in the North American raccoon population is distemper, which can reach epidemic proportions and kill most of a local raccoon population. Also, in areas with heavy vehicular traffic and extensive hunting, these factors can account for up to 90% of all deaths of adult raccoons. The most important natural predators of the raccoon are bobcats, coyotes, and great horned owls, the latter mainly preying on young raccoons, and in the southeast, they are among the favored prey for adult American alligators.
Regarding their diet, although nocturnal, raccoons can also become active during the day, if they want to take advantage of the food sources they have. In the natural world, raccoons snare a lot of their meals in the water. These nocturnal foragers use lightning-quick paws to grab crayfish, frogs, and other aquatic creatures. On land, they pluck mice and insects from their hiding places and raid nests for tasty eggs. While its diet in spring and early summer consists mostly of insects, worms, and other animals already available early in the year, it prefers fruits and nuts, such as acorns and walnuts, which emerge in late summer and autumn, and represent a rich calorie source for building up fat needed for winter and when food is plentiful, raccoons can develop strong individual preferences for specific foods. Raccoons also eat fruit and plants, including those grown in human gardens and farms. They will even open garbage cans to dine on the contents, making them be considered pests around households.
Raccoons as pests
These animals may look like cute, cuddly bandits, but they can be quite fearsome when approached. Though raccoons are more than happy to make human areas their homes, they can be vicious when approached by humans. Humans should be particularly cautious of approaching raccoons because they are common carriers of rabies, roundworms and salmonella and leptospirosis. Some signs that a raccoon may have rabies include aggressiveness, unusual vocalisation, and excessive drool or foam from the mouth.
They can also be extremely destructive due to their curiosity, intelligence, dexterity and climbing skills. Raccoons possess amazing dexterity that gives them the ability to open doors, jars, bottles and latches. They are also great climbers, which allows them to better access food and shelter. Here are some signs to help identify a raccoon problem:
- tipped trash cans
- raided bird feeders
- pilfered gardens
- damaged crops (ex. chewed sweet corn, hollowed out watermelons)
- uncapped chimneys
- torn shingles
- raccoon tracks: five long toes and fingers resembling human hands
Raccoons are sometimes kept as pets, which is discouraged by many experts because the raccoon is not a domesticated species. Raccoons may act unpredictably and aggressively and it is usually impossible to teach them to obey commands. Because of their intelligence and nimble forelimbs, even inexperienced raccoons are easily capable of unscrewing jars, uncorking bottles and opening door latches, with more experienced specimens having been recorded to open door knobs. They can also become obese and suffer from other disorders due to poor diet and lack of exercise.
It has been noted that that city life is potentially diverging a population of raccoons down an alternate evolutionary path in comparison to their rural counterparts. City raccoons show higher intelligence and just a few decades of city life has changed raccoon populations more than the previous 40,000 years. Cities are relatively new environments for wild species and, in order to survive in urban settings, animals must be extremely flexible. Raccoons are especially well-suited for cities because of their body sizes, sharp sense of smell, omnivorous diet and nimble hands. City raccoons live longer and have more offspring than raccoons in the country. City raccoons are thriving, and some overrun cities are trying to grapple with the damage they cause on homes and other property. Kassel, Germany has the largest raccoon population in Europe, with up to 100 raccoons per square kilometer. In Kassel, raccoons have caused a lot of property damage. Upon observing the raccoons, scientists discovered that 70% of the time, raccoons caused damage or entered homes by going up drain pipes. Scientists created drain pipe protectors to prevent raccoons from climbing up the pipes. Raccoons learned how to pass over the protectors, leading scientists to create new protectors that were harder for raccoons to navigate. Raccoons are always looking at how they can solve problems and overcome new challenges to reach specific goals/rewards.
Even though something might initially be an obstacle for raccoons, they will often find a way to overcome the challenge. This is why it is important to take serious preventive measures in order to avoid a possible raccoon infestation, if you live in an area where such populations exist. Keep in mind that getting rid of raccoons takes an integrated approach and by applying several control methods at once you will give have better success at eliminating raccoons and keeping them away from your property.