A raccoon is one of the most fascinating and intelligent of wild animals. There are seven different species of raccoons. They are related to ringtails, coatimundis, kinkajous, and lesser pandas. The name raccoon comes from the Indian word "arakum" meaning "he scratches with his hands." The raccoon is easily recognized by its black facemask and ringed tail. The mask helps reduce glare while aiding in camouflage and may enhance night vision. The tail is used as fat storage, for balance when climbing and as a brace when sitting up. Raccoon fur is long and dense. Adults may get as big as 40 inches in length (including the tail) and weigh up to 40 pounds. Their average lifespan in the wild is anywhere from 5 to 8 years. The greatest mortality occurs during the first two years of life – the principal cause of which is man.
Adult males tend to be solitary; matriarchal family groups are quite social and will feed and den together into the fall. Other raccoons will defer to a female with babies in feeding situations. The home range of an adult male is about one mile in diameter, although is expands in size during the breeding season. Adult females and their young inhabit smaller areas. A raccoon uses several dens within its home range. Babies will stay with the mother close to a year. Females give birth to an average litter of 3-4 babies each Spring. Raccoons do not hibernate, but they do go through a period of decreased activity during the winter which is also their mating season.
Raccoons do not construct their own den sites but rely on natural processes or the work of other animals. They usually den in hollow trees, rock crevices and ground dens. Active den trees are identified by claw marks or worn bark. Suitable ground dens include abandoned buildings, car bodies, wood or brush piles, hay stacks, rock crevices and abandoned dens of other animals.
Raccoons are opportunistic omnivores eating a variety of foods. They love corn and grapes and garbage pails and outside pet dishes are among their favorite urban dining spots. When living adjacent to saltwater habitats, they feed on oysters and other saltwater foods and may fish for crabs by dropping their tail in the water and jumping forward when the crab catches hold.
Raccoons are inquisitive and seldom pass up the opportunity to investigate an interesting smell or crevice. They are extremely agile climbers and have nimble feet but are flat-footed and relatively slow runners. Because their front toes can be opened wide, the forepaws can be used skillfully to handle food and other objects. Their little hands can bring food to their mouths and hold it while they eat. They can also open locks, unlatch bird feeders, open up garbage cans, etc.
A major cause of concern with raccoons is rabies. While raccoons can get rabies (just like any other mammal), that DOES NOT mean that every raccoon has rabies. A study in upstate NY showed that among animals testing positive for rabies, the raccoon was not at the top of the list. Even so, precautions must be taken when encountering a raccoon. These are wild animals that should be treated with respect and left alone. Children should be taught not to approach or touch a raccoon the same as they are taught not to approach any unknown animal, wild or domestic. Just because a raccoon is seen in daytime does not mean it is rabid. Mother raccoons sometimes forage during the day when they are nursing babies. Only if an adult raccoon seen in the daytime is showing abnormal behaviors such as paralysis, unprovoked aggression, moving in circles, self-mutilation, making screeching sounds, or showing supreme tameness should you call your local animal control officer or police department.
Another concern is the property damage caused by raccoons. They can be destructive. It is your responsibility to raccoon-proof your home. Cover up potential entrances, such as uncapped chimneys, loose shingles and openings in attics, roofs and eaves. Trim all overhanging tree branches or any other structure that animals might use to get onto the roof of the house or garage.
If you already have raccoons in the house but you’re not sure where they are getting in, sprinkle flour around possible entrances and check for footprints later. Make a raccoon den unlivable. Raccoons dislike loud noises, bright lights and strong smells. Put a blaring radio in the fireplace. Sprinkle napha flakes or hang ammonia-soaked cotton rags near the entrance and keep the area brightly lit. Apply these deterrents at dusk only; even harassed mother raccoons won’t move their babies in daytime. Make sure that all raccoons or other animals have left before sealing up holes in any part of a building. This is especially important from March-June when there may be babies. If a mother has taken up residence in your chimney or attic the best and kindest solution is to wait a few weeks for the raccoons to move out on their own. Don’t worry about any smell or mess—mother raccoons clean their babies meticulously to avoid attracting predators. Avoid a direct confrontation. A female with babies is quite capable of defending her family. It may take a few days for the mother to move her young, so be patient. Once the raccoons are gone, promptly call a chimney sweep to install a metal chimney cap (or seal any holes leading to the attic) and this situation will never occur again. Remember—the only permanent solution is to seal all entry holes once the animals have left.
Overflowing or uncovered garbage cans provide an open invitation for hungry raccoons. The simplest solution is to put out your garbage cans for pick-up in the morning, after the nocturnal raccoons have returned to their dens. If this is impossible, get a good plastic garbage can with a 4-inch high, tight fitting twist-on lid, such as the kind made by Rubbermaid. Keep the can upright by wrapping bungee cords around the middle and securing it to an upright object. Do not leave pet food in the yard.
If you want to learn more about raccoons,
The Gable’s Raccoon World
Raccoon Attic Guide