The northern raccoon (Procyon lotor) is one of the most common mammals in the United States. The raccoon is famous for the black fur around its eyes that looks like a bandit’s mask and for its long bushy tail with dark rings.
The northern raccoon belongs to a large group of related mammals known as the Procyonidae family. Other animals in this family are the coati and ringtail (both living in the Southwestern United States and Central America) and the crab-eating raccoon and kinkajou (in Central and South America). The red, or lesser, panda is also closely related to the raccoon. The famous giant panda, however, is related more closely to bears.
Where Raccoons Live
Raccoons live throughout North America, from Canada to Mexico, and into Central America. They are found in many natural habitats, including forests, wetlands, and rocky cliffs. They are also commonly found in rural and suburban areas. Wherever water is available, there are probably some raccoons nearby.
The Raccoon’s Body
The length of the raccoon’s body, including the tail, ranges from about 24 to 42 inches. A raccoon typically weighs between 8 and 20 pounds, with males being heavier than females. Some males may weigh more than 40 pounds.
The raccoon’s fur, which is long and course, is mostly gray, tinged with some yellow and brown. Its bushy tail usually has between five and seven rings.
Raccoons have little hands on their front legs that are almost like the hands of people. A raccoon’s hand has five long, flexible fingers to help the animal handle food, and strong, sharp claws to help it climb trees. Imprints of these little hands in the snow or mud make raccoon tracks easy to identify.
The feet of a raccoon are flat (plantigrade), with both the heel and toes touching the ground. These are the same kind of feet that bears and humans have. The feet of dogs and cats, by contrast, have heels that are high above the ground (digitigrade), meaning that these animals actually walk on their toes.
The raccoon eats almost anything it can fit in its mouth: insects, worms, crayfish, fish, frogs, mice, birds’ eggs, seeds, nuts, acorns, fruit—even disposed items in garbage and dead animals. Animals that have such a widely varied diet are said to be omnivorous.
Raccoons—especially those in captivity—often appear to wash their food by dunking it in water before eating it. However, because they dunk food that is perfectly clean just as often as they dunk dirty food, raccoons are probably not really trying the wash their food when they put it in water. Instead, according to scientists, captive raccoons dipping their food in water may simply be imitating the way they would normally pull crayfish, fish, and other food from the water in nature.
Most adult raccoons live alone, though they sometimes get together in groups (mainly at a source of plentiful food). Raccoons are most active at night, when they hunt and forage for food. During the day, they tend to stay in their dens, which may be in hollow logs or trees, underground burrows (abandoned by foxes, skunks, or other digging animals), old muskrat lodges, barns, or attics.
Raccoons living in cold areas, such as the northern United States, eat extra food during the fall to store up fat for winter. During the winter, they become less active, often sleeping for weeks at a time and living off of their fat reserves. However, raccoons are not true hibernators. In animals that are true hibernators, such as bats and ground squirrels, there are great drops in heart rate and body temperature, and the animals remain inactive for most of the winter. In raccoons, by contrast, heart rate and body temperature stay relatively high, enabling them to wake up on warmer winter days and go searching for more food.
Raccoons usually mate in late winter, between January and March. Nine weeks after mating, usually in April or May, the young are born. A female raccoon can have from one to eight (typically three or four) cubs (also called kits). A baby raccoon does not have a mask until it is about two weeks old.
The mother raccoon feeds and cares for her cubs in the den until they are 8 to 10 weeks old. The cubs then begin to leave the den and follow their mother around during her searches for food. In this way, they learn to find food for themselves.
Sometime in autumn, when the cubs are about six months old, they go out on their own and find their own dens. Some young raccoons may travel more than 100 miles from where they were born. Raccoons can mate when they are one year old.
Raccoons in captivity may live 15 years or longer. In the wild, however, raccoons typically live less than five years, falling prey to extreme weather, disease (such as rabies and distemper), natural enemies (such as coyotes and foxes), and encounters with people (such as hunters and drivers of automobiles).
Raccoons are playful, alert, and intelligent animals. In laboratory experiments, they do almost as well as monkeys at figuring out how to open food containers made with complex latches and other fasteners. Once they learn how to perform a task, they remember it.
In the wild, raccoons can easily figure out how to use unfamiliar food (such as how to open melons and even how to kill sheep) when their normal food supply becomes hard to find. Wild raccoons are also good at discovering ways to escape from hunters. Raccoons’ natural aggressiveness sometimes allows them to cut and slash their way through packs of hunting dogs.
Raccoons have been trapped and hunted since before the arrival of European colonists in North America. During the frontier days of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in the early 1800’s, the “coonskin cap,” made from raccoon fur, was popular headwear. Today, raccoons are still trapped and raised for the fur market. Raccoons are also commonly killed by automobiles as the animals try to cross busy roads.
Despite centuries of being trapped, hunted, and run over, raccoons remain common animals throughout the United States. The main reason for this is that raccoons are very adaptable animals, able to adjust to and thrive in changing conditions. They make themselves right at home, whether in a forest or city, and they find food anywhere, whether in a pristine stream or garbage dump. Simply put, they are real survivors!
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Raccoon article, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Joseph A. Chapman, George A. Feldhamer, editors. Wild Mammals of North America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
- William H. Burt, Richard P. Grossenheider. A Field Guide to the Mammals. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.
- Robert Snedigar. Our Small Native Animals: Their Habits and Care. Dover Publications, 1963.