by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander…In late March or early April, when the breezes are warmer and winter snow begins to melt, that is when I see her again. The female raccoon that comes to our “bird feeders” to get a quick meal before meandering back to her den to sleep a little longer. By the end of April I begin to remove the feeders nightly. I don’t mind sharing the food, which we purchase to feed the birds, but it is because it becomes too easy for the raccoon to find a meal and it is costly. That female can almost drain the entire feeder of black-oiled sunflowers extremely fast, and black bears are enticed too by any type of “fast food” after a long hibernation, plus they destroy the feeders in their haste to eat.
Northern Raccoon or Procyon lotor, pronounced (pro. cee. on – lo. tor), its scientific name is Latinized/Greek for “dog-like washer.” The common name, raccoon came from the English translation of a Powhatan word at the time of the Virginia Colony. The “washer” came from the thought that raccoons wash all their food before eating it. Which is generally not the case; they may dip their food in water if it is available, but will then proceed to eat whether it is actually clean or not. When not on our balcony, this raccoon spends most of its day resting in a tree or in tree cavity or a hollow log. Raccoons can also be found everywhere from Adirondack forests to city parks, but favor areas near water and trees, they also like wooded swamps. Urban raccoons may live under a porch, in a house chimney or in a culvert.
They are basically nocturnal but you may see one in the daytime or before dusk depending on the weather and a need for food. In the Order of Carnivora (carnivores) they are true omnivores. A look at a raccoon’s skull, which is rectangular in shape, will show four types of teeth incisors, canines, premolars and molars. These types of teeth help it survive without the strict regimens of a carnivore (meat eating) or herbivore (plant eating). Its diet is quite diverse, eating in spring and summer crayfish (crabs), worms, slugs, insects, nestlings, frogs, snails, turtles and turtle’s eggs, chicken and their eggs, in addition to berries, and garden vegetables. A raccoon has been seen as an opportunist, when watched by a nature photographer, as one sat behind a snapping turtle that was laying its eggs. As the turtle dropped each egg into the hole she had dug the raccoon reached into the hole, grabbed it and ate it.
In the fall the acorns, beech nuts and corn that they consume contains proteins, carbohydrates and fat as well as calcium, potassium, niacin and phosphorus all required to help it survive its dormancy in winter. Raccoons are not true hibernators. They do live off of stored body fat in winter, but their heart rate, breathing and metabolism doesn’t decrease. They may travel an area of ten acres to as much as several square miles in order to enough find food. Urban raccoons are notorious in getting into garbage and even unlatching lids and locks. In the Adirondacks, especially if camping it is wise to securely protect your food, keeping in mind that there both raccoons and bears that prefer the easier methods of obtaining food. Raccoons will compete with skunks for the same food. Many times when I have been a little late in removing the feeders for the night, I can tell that the skunk did more than just a warning and the raccoon is reeking.
The females are ready to mate in January and February in our area. Females may den up alone or with their offspring of the past litter. Males den up alone, and will travel as much as ten miles looking for females and will probably mate with more than one female during this time. Males do not play a part in rearing or feeding the young.
The female’s gestation time is about 63 days and she will give birth to three or four babies, the babies are called cubs or kits. And a group of raccoons is referred to as a nursery or gaze. The kits are born with a light layer of fur that will grow quickly and they will begin to resemble the adult in about two weeks, with the bandit masked face and bushy banded tail with dark brown and tan stripes. Although they are only four inches long and weigh about two ounces when born by the end of summer they will weigh close to the 15 to 25 pounds of an adult and will be about 25 to 35 inches long, excluding the tail. The eyes that are closed at birth will begin to open at three to four weeks. Their mother will stay with them for the first few day and then start foraging for her food again. At five weeks she will leave them for the entire night while foraging. They become curious at this age and begin looking out of the hole where they are denned up in a tall tree. They make purring, growling and whistling sounds and occasionally a really curious one may even fall from the hole in the tree. Generally they are not hurt and the returning mother will carry them back to the tree cavity den. She carries the kits the same way a domestic cat carries its kittens, by the nape of the neck with its teeth. After 10 weeks the kits are weaned and start eating solid foods. At three months they are finding and eating their own food, foraging with the mother. They stay together throughout the summer and fall and most likely will den up together the first winter.
Raccoons will often establish a communal bathroom where several may deposit their scat. One might be found at the trunk of a tree or on a well traveled path. Their scat usually contains seeds, insects and crustacean parts. It is very important NOT to handle it or smell it, as it may contain a parasite, which is dangerous to humans. The parasite is Baylisascaris procyonis, a roundworm and its egg are passed in feces of infected raccoons.
Fun to observe and photograph, but they are a wild animal and should be treated as such. Hope to see you on the trails…