Raccoons, Procyon lotor, are common visitors in urban area. The name comes from the Algonquin Indian word, “arakun” which means, “he scratches with hands.”
They are in the Procyonid family along with ringtails and coatimundi. Raccoons are easily recognized by the black mask over their eyes and their bushy striped tail. They are native from Canada to South America. They were brought as pets to Europe and are continuing to spread as invasive specie there. They have adapted so well to urban areas, they can become nuisances when they raid dog food from porches and knock over trashcans for their evening meal.
They have five fingers and five toes. The hind feet are plantigrade, meaning they walk on the sole of their hind feet as humans do. The hands are very small so they can get inside things working away at things. Even without opposable thumbs, raccoons’ hands are dexterous and have specialized hairs called vibrissae. The vibrissae are extremely sensitive to their touch allowing them to locate objects without touching them. They become more sensitive when wet, so the “washing” is really allowing them to take in more information. Their fingers aid them in feeling stream bottoms for food, climbing trees and opening containers and garbage cans.
They are amazing agile getting through tight spaces. Putting their back feet out, their spines go flat allowing them to pass in spaces only two inches tall. No wonder they frequently find their way into homes, garages, and attics.
Raccoons are omnivorous taking advantage of available food sources. They eat fruits, nuts, insects, aquatic invertebrates, fish, small rodents, frog, bird eggs, carrion, and human garbage. They gorge on food during warmer months and then find dens for the colder winter months. They don’t hibernate, but they do enter a state of torpor where they lower their body temperature and metabolism to reduce energy use, so they will not need to venture out in winter cold to search for food. Where winters are warmer, they are active all winter.
Raccoons are usually nocturnal, sleeping during the day in their tree dens. They have both excellent night vision and a keen sense of hearing. They are agile climbers and strong swimmers. They communicate with hisses, growls, and whistles.
With a great memory and high intelligence, raccoons are excellent learners and problem solvers. Research shows they can solve a problem, remember the solution and use it again years later. My favorite raccoon story at my house involves a metal trashcan with bird seen on my front porch. The raccoons had discovered how to remove the lid and help themselves. After I put a chain on it, one evening a raccoon looked into my window and looked like it was snarling at me for preventing it from getting food there.
Breeding season ranges from late January to March depending upon the climate. In southern areas breeding occurs all year. Males may mate with several females. The females chose only one mate and do not tolerate other males after mating. Female raccoons have a litter of one to seven kits. Litter size is larger in the northern colder regions. Kits are born without teeth and the eyes are closed. Eyes open around two weeks and teeth appear a few days later. The young stay in the den around eight weeks when they leave to hunt with their mom. The mother raccoon teaches the kits to climb, hunt, and swim during the first summer. The kits usually remain with the mother until her next litter. The father does not help raise the kits.
Lifespan in the wild is short, only three to five years. Entire populations are usually replaced every seven years. There are a few records of raccoons living 12-16 years.