There are three raccoon species¹ in the world. Only one of them lives in the United States. Usually called just Raccoon, it’s also known as the Northern Raccoon, Common Raccoon and North American Raccoon. By any name, they’re smart and clever and probably visit your yard every night, keeping a lookout for tasty rodents and reptiles. (And if you leave pet food outdoors, they devour that, too!)
Inhabitants now of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America, their origins go back to Europe. Raccoons are in the Procyonidae family, which dates to the Oligocene Epoch, 25 million years ago. The oldest fossils in this family have been found in France and Germany. Raccoon fossils show a common ancestor with weasels, but also a close relationship with bears.
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” and lotor is Latin for “washer.” Our English word “raccoon” comes from the Algonquin Indian word arakun, meaning “he scratches with his hands” and refers to the raccoon’s habit of spending much time fingering its food.
The most distinctive feature of Raccoons is their “bandit’s mask,” a covering of black hair around their eyes that’s reminiscent of an Old West outlaw’s mask, 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.
Raccoons are 16 to 28 inches, not counting their tail, which is usually about 10 inches long. They stand 9 to 12 inches high at the shoulder. Adults weigh between 14 and 30 pounds — about the size of a Boston Terrier dog — with males being larger than females.
Raccoons 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 dexterity. (Their handprints 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.
Raccoons are very intelligent, curious critters. Combine these qualities with their dexterous hands and you can just imagine the challenge they may present when trying to keep them from where they don’t belong. They use their hands 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.
Raccoons typically move in a slow, shuffling manner, but they can move surprisingly fast when necessary, up to 15 miles per hour.
Raccoons have excellent night vision, but poor distance vision. They’re believed to be color blind. Their sense of smell is sharp and their hearing is keen. As you might guess from their fondness for fingering food, their sense of touch is their most important sense. Almost two-thirds of the part of their brain that deals with sensory perception is specialized for touch impulses.
Raccoons are reported to have 51 vocalizations, including growls, hisses, screams and whinnies. When they fight, they sound something like fighting cats. Baby raccoons make mewing, twittering, cooing or crying sounds of varying intensity depending on their level of stress or joy. Listen to raccoon vocalizations here and here. It’s believed that Raccoons quickly recognize the facial expressions of each other because of their distinctive facial coloration. Their light-and-dark-banded tails may also help them more quickly interpret another’s posture.
Previously considered to be territorial loners, there’s some new evidence that related females will share an area and up to four males will live together during mating season to defend an area against potential rivals. If you see a group, however, it’s most likely a mother and her youngsters. Raccoons are nocturnal, but nursing mothers in need of extra nourishment sometimes come out in the daytime. Raccoons are mild-mannered and prefer to run from conflict, so don’t corner them: If they feel forced to fight, they’re fierce and strong.
Raccoons roam a large home range at night as they search for food and, if food is scarce, may forage several square miles. Ahead of winter, those in the northern parts of their range feed heavily to put on fat. They may lose up to half of it through the winter — when the weather is particularly brutal, the layers of fat enable them to spend long stretches of time in their dens, without eating. Their thick, insulating hair helps keep them warm, but a protective winter den is important to their survival. They don’t technically hibernate, however.
Raccoons like to manipulate and feel food. They’re well-known for “washing” it, but it’s more accurate to call them food “wetters.” And only then if they have a convenient source of water nearby and only if they’re captive raccoons — this behavior isn’t witnessed in the wild. Raccoons don’t place their food in water for the purpose of actually scrubbing it clean, they just like to dabble in water and they catch some of their food there.
The Raccoon’s preferred habitat is a wooded area near water, whether it be marsh, swamp, bog, stream or a backyard Koi pond. They don’t like open areas where they have no trees to climb when in danger. But being smart and adaptable, they’ve learned to survive even where there are few trees, by taking up residence in such places as storm drains, attics, chimneys or under sheds.
Raccoons are omnivorous and opportunistic. They eat whatever they can find — rodents, eggs, crayfish, frogs, fish, snakes, insects, nuts, vegetables, fruits, grains, small mammals 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 they can find a way to climb to it), and 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. Male raccoons are among the mammals that have a penis bone (called a baculum or os penis). Scientists aren’t sure what its function is, but some hypothesize that it’s to make the erect penis more rigid or to help stimulate the female. A small percentage of female raccoons have a tiny bone in their clitoris, called a baubellum or os clitoris. (Early humans also had these bones.) 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.
Females have two ovaries and a “uterine horn” attached to each one. Embryos conceived from the eggs in one ovary migrate to the uterine horn of the opposite ovary. This process allows room for more embryos. The babies are born, however, through a single vagina. Females typically have three pairs of mammary glands, sometimes four.
The female lines a den with leaves for the warmth and comfort of her babies. The den may be in a tree cavity or other sheltered site she considers to be safe. 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 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 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 the 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.
Raccoon and rabies
The disease most Raccoons die from is distemper, a virus. But they also can carry other diseases, including rabies, a virus that’s lethal to both the animals and humans. Carried in saliva, rabies is transmitted through biting. Rabies, of course, is a serious matter, but to put it in perspective, fewer than 2,000 Raccoons across the country were found infected with rabies in 2011 (the most recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control). So, you can see that the percentage of infected animals is quite low within a population of animals that inhabits nearly the entire country.
Symptoms of rabies include a sickly appearance, loss of coordination and being abnormally vocal. Some rabid raccoons have no noticeable symptoms, however. If you should see abnormal behavior, call your local Animal Control Office. Always stay away from wild animals, even cute little raccoons. If you’re bitten, whether you believe a raccoon is rabid or not, immediately see your doctor to get rabies shots for yourself — they are the only thing that will save your life. Note that raccoons, although nocturnal, sometimes forage in the daytime, especially nursing mothers who need extra nutrition.
Raccoons like to create community latrines, places where they all go to defecate. Latrines may be located on any kind of flat surface that’s located off the ground, such as woodpiles, large rocks, roofs and decks, but sometimes at the fork or base of a tree. They may also use attics and other indoor spaces, when accessible. Their feces are tube-shaped and about the diameter of a nickel or dime. Fresh feces are usually darker, but not always, and older feces are lighter in color.
The latrines are more than just unsettling and unsanitary piles of feces. They’re also hazardous, because they may hold the eggs of Baylisascaris procyonis, a harmful roundworm, which lives in the intestines of infected raccoons. Raccoons are the primary host of this parasite whose eggs are expelled in feces. If the eggs are inadvertently ingested by other animals, including humans, the hatched larvae travel through the body and cause serious damage to the eyes, brain and spinal cord. The incidence of roundworms in humans is very low — only 25 cases in the U.S. since 2003. Still, if you see a latrine in your yard, it’s a good idea to clean it up — especially if you have small children, who are more likely to put contaminated fingers or objects into their mouths. Pets should be kept away from the latrine, also. It’s important to be careful when cleaning up a latrine. Indoor latrines are especially hazardous and it’s best to leave the cleanup to a professional.
¹The others are the Crab-eating Raccoon of Panama and Central America and the critically endangered Cozumel Raccoon of Cozumel Island (off Mexico).
*Top photo: © Elaine R. Wilson / www.naturespicsonline.com; cc by-nc 3.0
Raccoon at a glance:
Appearance: Hair a mix of dark and light. Short snout, erect ears, whitish “eyebrows.” Black “mask” around eyes. Bushy tail with dark rings.