Raccoons are clever, and like humans, have adapted to many different environments, including both rural and urban habitats. Their population and range in the West are on the rise.
Unmistakable in appearance, with a pointed fox-like snout and round face highlighted by a distinctive black bandit’s mask across the eyes, their rotund body is somewhat pear-shaped, with a bushy striped tail with dark and light alternating bands. They waddle as they walk, trot when they hurry and gallop when pursed. Raccoons rarely run – they are formidable fighters.
Their thick fur coat with its water repellant guard hairs enables them to live in the Santa Monica Mountains and colder climates across North America as well as the wet Pacific Northwest, Vancouver Island, Queen Charlottes of British Columbia and up into Alaska. They don’t venture into the high country, usually staying below 6,562 feet.
Raccoons date back to 25 million years ago and have shared lineage with weasels, bears and the extinct bear-dogs. Raccoons are the most diverse omnivores (meat and plant eaters) in North and Central America and the array of foods they eat is truly astounding. And they are known to wash their hands before eating.
They favor aquatic systems like rivers, lakes, marshes and seashores, surrounded by forests, because they love to eat crayfish. They will also eat nuts, seeds, fruit (like us they have very sweet taste receptors) including grapes, cherries, apples, peaches, plums, pears, Russian olive tree fruit, raspberries, hackberries, juniper berries, oak acorns and they particularly enjoy feasting on domesticated corn. They eat more invertebrates (spineless life forms) like insects, crustaceans, spiders, diving beetles, dung beetles, grasshoppers, dragonflies, ants, wasps, bees, snails, earthworms and slugs than vertebrates (animals with spines). Like us, they enjoy eggs and they don’t discriminate between turtles, ducks, geese or any other waterfowl. Voles, mice, shrews, fish, rabbits and even Jackrabbits are among the raccoons’ prey.
They defecate and urinate in communal latrines which are used for long periods of time.
Raccoons have five long, soft-skinned fingers on each hand or fore feet as well as five corresponding toes on each hind foot. They do not have webbing between their digits, which is unusual for a carnivore. Their claws are short, non retractable and essential for climbing, ripping apart logs to search for food and prying open clams and oysters.
Raccoons are highly adept at grasping and manipulating objects. They handle various objects while sitting, allowing their hindquarters to support their weight. Their paws are exceptionally dexterous, so much so that they can catch flying insects with ease. Raccoons’ ability to open various types of fasteners and to recall solutions of fastening problems for more than one year, without practice, is legendary.
The part of the raccoon’s brain that receives touch information from its hands, the tactile receiving area, is very large compared to all other mammals. Its fore paw motor function – controlled by the cerebral cortex – is more developed than those of either dogs or cats.
Raccoons are highly intelligent animals and use many types of vocalization; just like humans, they express anger, sadness, frustration and joy. In fact, there are up to 13 different types of calls that a mother and cubs share.
The first snowfall triggers the raccoon pancreas to secrete insulin which makes the critters sleepy. They are not true hibernators but inside hollowed trees they do drop into a heavy sleep than can last for many days. Sometimes as many as 12 extended family members will share a den. Clearly, additional body heat is most welcome.
Two consecutive days of above freezing temperatures bring them, albeit lethargically, out of their den. They eat snow and ice to attain water. Wintertime usually costs raccoons about 50 percent of their body fat (some of which is stored in their tails). It’s no wonder why they have such a diverse diet, because as soon as possible in the springtime they must gain weight. A mature healthy male can weigh up to 35 pounds, while females weigh about 31 pounds.
Bobcats, coyotes, several owl species, cougars, wolves, fishers and foxes are feared predators.
Raccoons are nocturnal and the dark bands around their eyes act to reduce the glare on water from a full moon, just as football and baseball athletes mimic these dark bands by smearing charcoal on their cheeks under bright conditions.
Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and educator.