Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
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There are 18 species of raccoons around the world. The only one inhabiting the U.S. is the Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Feisty, fun, beneficial and common in backyard wildlife habitats, they help keep rodent and reptile populations under control.
Fossil evidence indicates that raccoons first inhabited Europe about 25 million years ago and they share a common ancestor with weasels. However, molecular analysis reveals they have a closer present day relationship to bears. Early raccoons migrated first into, probably, Central America, then northward into the Great Plains of the U.S. in the middle of the Pliocene Epoch, which extended from 5.332 million to 2.588 million years ago.
Northern Raccoons are noted for "washing" their food before eating it and part of their scientific name, Procyon lotor, derives from that: Procyon comes from Latin-Greek meaning "before dog." Lotor is Latin for "washer." Our word raccoon comes from the Algonquin Indian word arakun, meaning "he scratches with his hands" and refers to raccoons' habit of spending much time fingering their food.
It would be more appropriate to call them food "wetter." Research shows they don't place their food in water for the purpose of actually scrubbing it clean. They just like to wet it when they have the opportunity (they'll eat their food dry, if necessary.) They also like to manipulate and feel food.
The most distinctive physical feature of the Northern Raccoon is their "bandit's mask," a covering of black hair around their eyes that's framed by white "eyebrows" and a white snout. They often have a brown-black streak of color extending between their eyes from their forehead to their nose. The rest of their body is covered by a mix of dark and light hair, which helps them blend into the dappled light of a forest habitat. They have a long, bushy tail with several dark rings.
Northern Raccoons are about 2 feet long, not counting their tail, which is about 10 inches long. Adults weigh between 14 and 30 pounds -- about the size of a Boston Terrier dog -- with males being larger than females.
Northern Raccon paw prints
photo: Matt Muir / EOL
They have five hairless, claw-tipped fingers and toes. Their front paws are unique because they have thumbs. Not opposable ones, like a human's, but they're second only to a monkey's in dexterousness. (Their hand prints look remarkably like tiny human hands.) They're agile climbers who can come down a tree both forward and backward and have been known to drop 40 feet without getting hurt. They usually walk on all fours, but can stand on their back legs when they wish. They're also good swimmers.
Northern Raccoons are very intelligent. Combine intelligence with thumbs and you can imagine the challenge they may present when trying to keep them out of where they don't belong. They use their paws much like we do and are known to sometimes invite themselves into a house -- they can turn the doorknob, open cabinets, drawers and the refrigerator, lift lids or even unscrew jar lids! Their curiosity might lead them into every nook and cranny.
They have well-developed senses of sight and hearing, but their senses of smell and taste are unremarkable. Their sense of touch is excellent. Raccoons typically move in a slow, shuffling manner, but they can move surprisingly fast when necessary, running as fast as 15 miles per hour.
They're reported to have a vocabulary of 51 vocalizations, including a "whoo-OO-OO-OO" that sounds like a screech owl. When they fight, they sound something like cats fighting. They also utter growls, hisses, screams and whinnies. Baby raccoons make mewing, twittering, cooing or crying sounds of varying intensity depending on their level of stress or joy. You can hear raccoon vocalizations by searching on the Internet for "raccoon sounds."
Raccoons are mild-mannered, unless cornered. They prefer to run away from conflict, but they're fierce, and strong for their size, if forced to fight. Raccoons are nocturnal loners and territorial (especially males). They roam a large "home range" at night for food and may forage several square miles if food is scarce. Although alone most of the time, they will sometimes share a den with other raccoons. If you see a group, however, it's most likely a mother and her youngsters.
Ahead of winter, raccoons feed extra heavily to put on fat. In winter, when the weather is particularly brutal, the layers of fat enable them to spend long stretches of time in their dens, without eating. They don't technically hibernate, however. Raccoons have thick, insulating hair which helps keep them warm in the northern part of their range. But a good, protective, winter den is important to their survival.
The Northern Raccoon lives almost everywhere there is water -- across the U.S., up into southern Canada and south throughout Mexico and Central America. Their preferred habitat is a wooded area near water, whether it be marsh, swamp, bog, stream or your backyard Koi pond. They've learned to survive in neighborhoods with few trees, taking up residence in storm drains, attics, chimneys or under sheds.
Northern Raccoons are omnivorous. Their foods include rodents, eggs, crayfish, frogs, fish, snakes, insects, nuts, vegetables, fruit, grains and, sometimes, roadkill. They can be a nuisance to farmers or gardeners when they raid poultry houses for eggs and chicks or damage crops. For most urbanites, the biggest problem they present is keeping them out of trash containers. They love the city dump -- yum, a smorgasbord.
Nesting and cover
Raccoons spend the daytime resting where they'll feel safe and sheltered. This can be just about anywhere: on a bare tree limb, in a hollow tree or log, in an old squirrels nest, in culverts, abandoned buildings, openings under the porch or shed, in an attic or chimney (if there's a nearby tree they can climb), brush piles or wide crevices in a rock pile. They move frequently, often daily, except when raising their young.
Male raccoons become sexually mature at about two years and females at one year. They mate once a year, between January and June. After mating the male stays around for a week or so, then leaves in search of another female. If he tries to stay longer, the female will chase him away.
The female lines a den with leaves for the warmth and comfort of her babies. She usually delivers three or four (called kits), but sometimes up to seven. Kits' eyes are closed and ears pressed tightly against their head. They hardly have any hair -- the famous masked face and ringed tail are, for now, only a shadow. In about three weeks their eyes open. By seven weeks they're fully furred. Around nine weeks they have their first taste of food other than milk, when they start following their mother on her nightly forays. They'll be completely weaned at around four months.
The family group stays together until late fall, the youngsters learning all their mother's sly tricks. You may not be able to ignore the family's clamoring, climbing, door-opening, trashcan-toppling ways. Don't get too close -- she's very protective of her kits, going so far as to boost them up trees if they're threatened. And, the normally mild-mannered mother will fight ferociously to protect them.
As the weather begins to turn cooler, the family eats, eats, eats. They need to pack on as much body weight as possible heading into winter -- up to 30 percent more. Sometimes the kits stay with their mother until she's forced to kick them out to make room for her next litter. Usually, though, they strike out on their own in time to find a suitable winter den. They may go miles away in search of just the right location. After they're gone, their mother (with perhaps a big sigh of relief?) carries on alone until the next time.
Raccoons can live up to 15 years in captivity, but in the wild most die before their second year. If they survive that long, they live an average of five years.
The biggest predator of raccoons is humans. In Minnesota alone hunters and trappers take more than a quarter of the raccoon population every year. In other areas, authorities control populations by baiting or trapping them. Because raccoons are so smart and hard to catch, sport hunters in some areas of the U.S. take particular pleasure in pursuing them with dogs. Raccoons may cross a stream and double back, climb trees and jump from tree to tree, or enter water and swim downstream to break their scent trail. Pelt hunters trap raccoons for their fur. Couturiers use their fur for sheared raccoon coats. Many more die under the wheels of autos, when raccoons are hit while feeding on roadkill.
Other predators include coyotes, large hawks, owls and wolves. Young raccoons may be taken by foxes or even snakes.