All about the Northern Raccoon

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There are three raccoon species¹ in the world. Only one inhabits the United States, and most people refer to it as the Raccoon, although it’s more formally known as the Northern Raccoon or Common Raccoon. By any name, it’s smart and clever and probably visits your yard every night, foraging for rodents and reptiles, and any tasty leftovers you’ve added to your compost bin.

Background

The Northern Raccoon’s scientific name is Procyon lotor. Procyon comes from Latin-Greek for “before dog,” and lotor is Latin for “washer,” a reference to the Raccoon’s reputation for washing food. Most sources say the word “raccoon” comes from Algonquin Indian arakun, meaning “one who scratches with his hands.” Wikipedia.org relates it to the Powhatan Indian words aroughcun and arathkone.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Procyonidae
Genus: Procyon
Species: P. lotor

Raccoons are mammals in the Procyonidae (PRO-sy-ON-O-dee) family, which originated in Europe. Their oldest fossils go back to the Oligocene (OLLY-GO-seen) Epoch, 25 million years ago. Discovered in Europe, analysis of them shows a common ancestor with weasels, but a closer relationship to bears. At least six million years later, their then-existing ancestors crossed the Bering Strait from Russia into NA.

Today Northern Raccoons and their subspecies are found across the continental United States and much of Canada, as well as Mexico and Central America. Although native to North America, they now inhabit much of Europe and Japan.

Physical description

The Raccoon’s most distinctive feature is its “bandit’s mask,” a covering of black hair around its eyes that’s reminiscent of an Old West outlaw’s mask, framed by white “eyebrows” and a white snout. Raccoons often have a brown-black streak of color extending between their eyes from the forehead to the nose.

Northern Raccoon facing the camera.

(Don Loarie / EOL; cc by 3.0)



The rest of the body is covered by a mix of dark and light hair, which helps them blend into the dappled light of their forest habitat. About 90 percent of its hair is a thick undercoat which they start shedding in late winter. A long, bushy tail with several dark rings is another distinguishing characteristic.

Size

Raccoons are 16–28 inches (41–71cm) long, not counting their tail, which is about 10 inches (25 cm). At the shoulder, they stand 9–12 inches (23–30 cm). They weigh about the same as a Boston Terrier dog, 14–30 pounds (6–14 kg). Males are larger than females.

Image of a raccoon skeleton on display with added label marking the different bones.

Raccoon skeleton on display at Museum of Zoology, Univ. of Michigan (Phil Myers / EOL; CC Lic.)



Agility

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, and their handprints look remarkably like tiny human ones. If they get inside a house, their nimble fingers can turn a doorknob, open cabinets, drawers, and the refrigerator, and unscrew jar lids! Their natural curiosity might lead them into every nook and cranny. Owners of pet raccoons face that as a daily challenge!

#Close up of Raccoon's fingerprints in mud.

Raccoon fingerprints. (Matt Muir / EOL



They’re agile climbers that can come down a tree both forward and backward and have been known to drop forty feet (12 m) without injury. They usually walk on all fours but can easily stand on their back legs when they wish. They’re also good swimmers.

Raccoons typically move in a slow, shuffling manner, but they can run surprisingly fast if necessary, up to 15 miles per hour (24 kmh).

Senses

As you might guess from their fondness for feeling food, the Raccoon’s most important sense is touch. In fact, almost two-thirds of that part of their brain that deals with sensory perception is specialized for touch impulses. As for their other senses, they have excellent night vision, but poor distance vision and they’re believed to be color blind. Their sense of smell is keen, and their hearing is, too.

Intelligence

Raccoons are very intelligent. A Vanderbilt University study showed they have about the same number of neurons in their cerebral cortex as dogs. Other research has shown they can remember solutions to puzzles for at least three years. To escape hunters, they’re smart enough to 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.

There’s a cute Northern Raccoon, “Melanie,” who lives in Europe, with a repertoire of 100 different behaviors and tricks, including somersaults, using a broom, riding a bike, a scooter, and a skateboard. You can watch Melanie here.

Communication

Raccoons reportedly have 51 different vocalizations. They growl, hiss, scream, screech, and whinny. When they fight, they sound something like wrangling cats. Baby raccoons make mewing, twittering, cooing and crying sounds of varying intensity depending on their level of stress or joy. Researchers also believe Raccoons’ distinctive coloration enables them to communicate through facial expressions. And, their light-and-dark-banded tail may also help them quickly interpret one another’s posture.

Behavior

Raccoons are mild-mannered and prefer to run from conflict. They’ll move away if at all possible. If forced to fight, they’re fierce and strong.

Raccoons, which are nocturnal, roam an extensive home range at night as they search for food and, if it’s scarce, they may cover several square miles. If you see one out in the daytime, it’s probably a nursing mother in need of extra nourishment.

Raccoons were previously considered to be territorial loners, but 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 their turf against others. However, if you see a group, it’s most likely a mother and her youngsters.

Food washing

Raccoons like to manipulate and feel food. They’re known for “washing” it, but it’s more accurate to call them food “wetters.” They don’t always do even that. When they do, it isn’t to specifically clean it–they just like to dabble, which also happens to soften the food.

Northern Raccoon standing at edge of water and appearing to hold something in its front paws.

(© Serabik / 123RF)

Raccoons spend the winter sleeping (not hibernating) in their dens, especially those living in more northern areas. In the fall, they feed heavily to pack on fat, which will enable them to spend long stretches without eating. They may lose up to half their fat through the winter. Dense hair helps keep them warm, but a protective den is important to their survival.

Habitat

The Raccoon’s preferred habitat is a wooded area near water, whether that be marsh, swamp, bog, stream or a backyard Koi pond. They don’t like open areas where there are no trees to climb if in danger. However, being smart and adaptable, they’ve learned to survive even with few trees, by taking up residence in such places as storm drains, attics, chimneys and under sheds.

Food sources

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 leftovers.

Northern Raccoon family standing on a patio where a dish of food has been put out for them.

Dinner is served! (Liz West / Flickr; cc by 2.0)



Nesting and cover

Raccoons spend daytime resting where they’ll feel safe and sheltered. That may be in a brush pile, a hollow tree or log, an old squirrel’s nest, culvert, abandoned building, or opening under a porch or shed. If they can find a way in, an attic or chimney will do just fine, too. They move frequently, often daily, except females when raising their young.

Raccoon peering out of its den in a fall tree trunk.

Raccoon in its den. (Nietnagel / Flickr; cc by-nc-sa 2.0)



Reproduction

Male Raccoons become sexually mature at about two years and females at one year. They mate once a year, between January and June. The male stays around for a week or so after mating then leaves in search of another female. If he tries to stay longer, she will chase him away.

Os penis and uterine horn

Males are among the few mammals that have a penis bone (called a baculum or os penis). Experts 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 females have a tiny bone in their clitoris, called a baubellum or os clitoris. (Early humans also had these bones!)

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, a process that allows room for more embryos. The babies are born, however, through a single vagina. Females typically have three pairs of mammary glands, sometimes four.

Rescued baby Northern Raccoon with eyes still closed and ears flattened, held in human's hand.

Young baby, eyes still closed. (Bruce Freeman EOL; cc by-nc 3.0)


The pregnant female searches for a suitable den, one that’s sheltered and safe, and lines it with leaves. She usually delivers three or four babies, but up to seven is possible. The babies, called kits, have closed eyes and their ears are pressed tight to 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 as they start following their mother on her nightly forays. At around four months, they’re completely weaned.

Family group

The family group stays together until late fall with the youngsters learning all their mother’s sly know-how. Sometimes these families make quite a ruckus with their clamoring, trashcan-toppling ways. The mother is very protective of her kits, going so far as to boost them up trees if they’re threatened. Moreover, she’ll fight viciously to protect them.

Mother Northern Raccoon standing next to a tree, with two of her young standing next to her.

It isn’t unusual for Raccoons to be out in the daytime. (lovecatz / Flickr; cc by-sa 2.0)



As the weather turns 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 in time to find a suitable winter den of their own They may go miles away in their search. Their mother carries on alone until the next season.

Life span

Raccoons can live up to twenty 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.

Predators

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 them by baiting or trapping. Pelt hunters trap them because couturiers use their fur for sheared Raccoon coats. Many more die under the wheels of vehicles when they’re hit while feeding on roadkill. Other predators include Coyotes, foxes, large hawks, owls, wolves, and even snakes.

Raccoon latrines

Raccoons like to create community latrines, places where they all go to defecate. Latrines may be located on any flat surface that’s situated 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 old waste is 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 dangerous roundworm, that lives in the intestines. Raccoons, in fact, are the primary host of this parasite whose eggs are expelled in feces. If other animals, including humans, inadvertently ingest the eggs the hatched larvae travel through the body and cause severe damage to the eyes, brain, and spinal cord. Fortunately, roundworms in humans are rare—only 25 cases in the US since 2003. Still, if you see a latrine in your yard, it’s a good idea to clean it up promptly. 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, too. It’s important to be careful when cleaning one up. Indoor latrines are particularly hazardous, and it’s best to leave the cleanup to a professional.

Raccoon and rabies

The disease most Raccoons die from is distemper, a virus, not rabies. But, they can carry rabies, which is a virus that’s lethal to both them and humans. Rabies (which is a singular noun even though it has that ‘s’ on the end) is carried in saliva and transmitted through biting. It’s a deadly disease, but fewer than 2,000 Raccoons across the country were found infected with it in 2011 (the most recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control). So, you can see that the percentage of infected Raccoons 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. A few have no noticeable symptoms at all. Should you see observe abnormal behavior, call your local Animal Control Office. Always stay away from wild animals, even cute baby ones. If you’re bitten, whether you believe a Raccoon is rabid or not, immediately see your doctor for rabies shots for yourself—that’s the only way to save your life.

¹The others are the Crab-eating Raccoon, Procyon cancrivorus, of Panama and Central America and the critically endangered Cozumel Raccoon, Procyon pygmaeus, of Cozumel Island (off Mexico).


*Top photo: © Elaine R. Wilson / www.naturespicsonline.com; cc by-nc 3.0

More reading:

Sleeping winter away  
Summer wildlife disappear in winter, but where to?    

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