Racoons (or raccoons, as it can be spelt) belong to the family procyonidae. Other species in this family include the coati, ring tailed miners cat, kinkajous, olingo and cacomistle. They are seen by many to resemble dogs and cats but are in fact related to neither. Racoons are classified as carnivores but are more omnivorous in nature.
Spread throughout the Americas and introduced to some parts of Europe and Asia the seven species of racoon include the common racoon of North America and the crab eating racoon of South America. Generally nocturnal they are seldom seen in the wild but can become pests in urban areas as they are very tolerant to human activity.
Origins of Name
The scientific name of the common racoon is Procyon Lotor. Lotor is Latin for washer and relates to the habit racoons have of seeming to wash their food. This behaviour doesn't usually involve the actual cleaning of their food. It is thought by scientists that in captivity this behaviour is a fixed motor pattern used to search for aquatic prey in the wild.
The racoons common name is derived from the Native American word Aroughcun or Aracoun meaning 'he scratches with his hands'. The racoon's part in Native American folklore and mythology was as the trickster, an animal who was sly and outsmarts his enemies.
The racoon is a fairly heavily built animal with light grey or greyish/brownish fur. The fur is long and dense especially in the autumn where it thickens into a heavy winter coat. It has a black face mask and a white tail with 5 to 7 black rings, amazingly the racoon's tail always has a black tip.
On average the adult racoon measures around 60 to 105 cm not including the tail which can add another 25 cm to the total length. It's weight can be anything from 5 kg to 18 kg although one racoon was once weighed at 28 kg. Like all carnivores it has long canine teeth but it's molars are flat and suited more to crushing, fitting in with its omnivorous lifestyle.
The racoon has five toes on each foot and non retractable claws. It also has naked soles and like humans and bears the whole hind foot touches the ground while walking, as a result it is a slow runner but makes up for this as it is a very agile climber and one of the few mammals who can descend a tree head first. Racoons are also strong swimmers but will only enter deep water as an escape route.
Racoons have a highly developed sense of touch considered to be superior to other non primate mammals. Their front paws are very hand like with long mobile fingers and they use these sensitive hands like humans to catch prey. They have a well developed sense of sight, hearing and smell which they need for their nocturnal lifestyle.
Breeding and Young
As a rule racoons breed between January and March and during this time female racoons will ovulate spontaneously. As a result the young racoons (often called cubs or kits) are born from March to May after a 54 to 73 day gestation. At birth baby racoons weigh around 3 to 5 ounces. They are born with woolly fur and dark skin. Usually they only have a faint face mask and no rings on their tail, these tend to appear after a week. Also their eyes and ears are closed at birth and remain so until around their 18th to 23rd day.
After birth young racoons will remain in the den. When hungry, cold or not in contact with another warm body they will start to chatter, whine or twitter like birds. They are unable to climb or stand and support their full weight. After their eyes open they tend to become very vocal creating a great range of sounds including a growl, hiss and alarm snort.
At 7 weeks most of the young are able to walk, run and climb very well. They often engage in active and occasionally rough fighting and wrestling, often imitating the adult defensive postures they will need in later life. At 60 to 90 days the young are weaned and become independent by 130 days. Juveniles leaving the home area can travel up to 75 miles and may only come back occasionally for denning and feeding.
Mothers with cubs enjoy a privileged position in the racoon hierarchy. It is common for other racoons to defer to a mother with cubs in feeding situations. Female racoons reach sexual maturity around 9 or 10 months and males in their first year but don't often get a chance to mate until their second year. Racoons don't mate for life and males will often mate with more than one female. Also male racoons won't share in the rearing of the young.
Habitat and Homes
The racoon is found primarily in broadleaf woodland and wetland areas near rivers and streams. They are permanent residents that prefer areas which have trees at many stages of growth however the racoon is a survivor who can occupy most habitats except alpine and desert areas. This is because the racoon must have access to water as they need to drink everyday. It has long been a common species in the USA especially in the east and in the 1940's there was a continent wide population explosion. As a result there were 15 times as many racoons in North America in the 1980's than in the 1930's.
A racoon's home range may vary from 200 to 940 acres with a diameter of half a mile to one and a half miles. Males are very territorial towards other males while females are not. A single male's home range will overlap many female's home ranges. Usually solitary animals, racoons sometimes form small groups for feeding and denning, especially in the winter. However one winter a Minnesota trapper found a huge group of 23 racoons in an old cabin.
In winter racoons are said to hibernate however it is not true hibernation. Racoons become dormant in very cold or adverse weather conditions but don't exhibit the physiological changes of true hibernation such as reduced temperature, reduced rate of respiration and heartbeat and insensibility to pain.
Racoons like to den in hollow trees and logs, rocky crags and old animal homes such as badger setts and beaver dams, but they have also moved into urban areas. However there have been some unusual den sites reported in the past;
Active den tress can be identified by claw marks or worn bark. Racoons prefer their den trees to be sheltered from rain and the prevailing winds with the opening at least 15 ft off the ground. However in summer racoons often sleep on a large tree limb or on the ground. They also usually have more than one den in their home range. Racoons are very clean animals who use a common latrine in the wild.
The racoon is not a specialised feeder, it eats a variety of animal and plant matter including crayfish, frogs, fish, small birds, small mammals, eggs, snakes, insects, grains, nuts and fruit. It has also been known to prey on domestic animals and nests of ground nesting birds such as ducks and pheasants. In early autumn racoons in Texas also enjoy eating wasps, wasp larvae and their stored food. In urban areas racoons enjoy taking advantage of cat and dog food and waste food.
Where food is plentiful plant matter is usually consumed twice as much as animal matter. However females with young eat high protein matter to ensure growth of the young. After the young have been weaned the mothers can take advantage of the grains, fruits and vegetables such as sweetcorn to which racoons are particularly fond. In autumn racoons eat energy rich foods and high protein foods to build up fat reserves for the winter. In the winter racoons usually rely on their fat reserves but if hungry they will eat anything they find including waste grain and carrion.
Racoons find their food along the riverbank, in shallow water and on the ground. They hunt in shallow water by turning over rocks and tree limbs and probing with their feet. They use their dextrous front paws to catch and examine potential food. Racoons will seldom pass up the opportunity to investigate an interesting smell or crevice for potential food. Usually they will return to the same area to feed as long as there is plenty of food there.
Racoons are one of the few animals who have been little affected by mans encroachment into their habitat. Racoons are the USA's version of the British red fox. Well adapted to life in the city the racoon uses it's dextrous hands and intelligence to open almost any object. They have learnt to open dustbins, doors and turn on water taps. Well known for their night time raids on dustbins they can become a pest but rarely cause serious problems for homeowners. Modified dustbins and dog food containers have been invented to keep racoons out.
The racoons love of corn usually causes little damage to corn fields but corn stores are sometimes decimated. The offending animal is usually removed and relocated to rural areas but often don't compete well with the established residents and so have poor survival rates. Also when relocating racoons the area must have lots of water, no hunting and people willing to feed them until they can fend for themselves.
In urban areas racoons use storm sewers as subways and den in attics and chimneys. Often racoons denning in these places are mothers with young cubs. Unfortunately it has been known for pest control companies to remove the mother, seal the attic or chimney and let the babies starve or suffocate. It is better for homeowners to leave the family alone until the cubs are 8 to 9 weeks old and can leave the den.
Mortality in Racoons and the Causes
On average a racoon will live only 6 years in the wild even though its lifespan is 16 years. However one captive racoon did live to be 21 years old. Studies in Iowa found that there was a 65% chance of survival for young racoons from birth to September of their first year. But by September to the following spring the chance was reduced to between 30 and 50%. On the whole the greatest mortality occurs within the second year of life.
Natural and Human Predatation
The racoons natural predators include the great horned owl, domestic dog, cougar, wolf, coyote and alligator. However the number of deaths caused by natural predators is insignificant to the deaths caused by man. Racoons are often hit by cars and in some cases racoons are killed while sleeping in hollow trees cut down by chainsaws.
Racoons were prized by the Native Americans for their fur and meat and apparently roasted racoon meat has an excellent flavour and thousands are eaten each year.
In Nebraska the racoon is an important fur bearer, from 1941 to 1989 more than 1.7 million were killed for their pelt which is used in coats, hats and trimmings. The annual harvest is on average 73 000 racoons with a total value of all fur bearers harvested in Nebraska.
Racoons are vulnerable to many diseases including Chagas disease, tuberculosis, rabies, blood poisoning and canine and feline distemper, Some of which can be transmitted to humans and pets. Parasites include roundworms, tapeworms, flukes and heartworms.
Canine distemper is a viral disease that kills many more racoons than any other disease or parasite. The young racoons are especially vulnerable and in some areas whole populations have been wiped out. This disease cannot be transmitted to humans but has very similar symptoms to rabies which can. Canine distemper affects the nervous system causing paralysis, circling, self mutilation and a lack of fear in humans.
Rabies, a disease with similar symptoms can be passed to humans through saliva in bites and is not as common in racoons as believed. Although racoons are considered a primary rabies carrier in North America there has never been an implication of a racoon passing the disease to a human. A common myth is that a racoon out in the daylight is likely to be rabid. Usually the racoon is only out looking for a snack or a new den.