Everyone knows the raccoon. These stocky dog-sized animals with the black mask across the eyes and the ringed tail are difficult to mistake for anything else as they amble along with their distinctive rolling gait. Walking along the river you will often see their tracks in the mud as evidence of their presence. The long fingered hand-like prints distinguish raccoon prints from those of other species you might find.
Rivers and wooded flood plain corridors, such as those along the Boquet, are important habitat for raccoons. This species is found all the way from southern Canada down to Panama in Central America and it is found in all of the habitat types in that broad geographical area except the dry-hot deserts and high Rockies of the western United States. But within that broad area, the raccoon is most common in the river corridor and swamp areas where deciduous trees are common. These areas provide in abundance the food, water, shelter, and denning sites the raccoons require. Because they are very mobile you may see raccoons well away from the river, but the odds are that the river plays an important part in some aspect of the raccoon's life.
Raccoons are usually nocturnal animals and we often see them by flashlight as they rummage our trashcans or garden during the night. But they are active enough during the day, especially near dawn and dusk, that we sometimes see them going about their business.
Raccoons have large brains and show many signs of intelligence such as good memory and curiosity. Using their hand-like paws they are good at manipulating objects. Raccoons are good climbers and have well developed senses of sight, hearing, and touch. A well-known behavioral trait is their tendency to wash their food before they eat it if water is available.
Raccoons will eat almost anything they can find. During the spring and summer their food tends to include a lot of animal material such as crayfish, frogs, turtles, minnows, earthworms, and insects such as grasshoppers, stoneflies, and black fly larvae. Later in summer they begin to eat more fruits, nuts, and grains. Wild apples and wild grapes are important fruits, as are those of dogwoods, viburnums, and poison ivy. Acorns and beach nuts are a frequent food during the fall and winter. The most common grain eaten in our area is corn from farmer's fields, but they also harvest the seeds of many wild grasses.
Raccoons tend to stay within an area with which they have become familiar. Such an area is referred to as a home range. Since raccoons avoid one another their home ranges do not usually overlap very much, but they do not defend these home ranges from other raccoons. The average size of a home range is about three square miles. Of course, the size varies depending on, among other things, how rich in food the area is. In poor areas the raccoons are forced to roam farther to find enough food. The raccoon comes to know its home range and remembers what foods are found in different places at different times of the year.
During cold weather raccoons become more inactive. They do not hibernate (i.e. the body temperature does not become lower) but when the temperature outside goes below freezing they spend more time sleeping in dens. During the winter denning period, usually from November to March in our area, they live off of the stored fat in their bodies. During this period they may lose as much as one-half of their body weight.
The dens used for sleeping during the day or in cold weather are also used as a nesting den to rear a family. Most dens are up in hollow trees, but other sites such as hollow logs, crevices in rocks, or cavities under tree roots may be used.
Raccoons usually mate in February. The males and females are promiscuous and do not remain together after mating. The mother carries the litter for about two months and birth usually occurs in April. The average litter is about four pups; each pup weighs only about two and one-half ounces at birth. The mother raises the young by herself. She usually keeps them in her den for the first two months (until about June), and then moves them to more temporary ground den sites. These ground sites are often in wooded wetlands.
By September the young are weaned and are semi-independent, but they continue to live in the mother's home range and to sleep in the den with her. The young continue to become more independent and develop their survival skills during the fall. But as the winter denning time approaches the mother and her young band together again and may den in the same tree or in a group of nearby trees.
In spring the young go their own way and establish their own home range. Some young females may breed as yearlings but others wait until the second year. The males usually wait until the second year to breed. The major causes of death are being killed by dogs or by humans - either by trapping or by being struck by an automobile. A typical life span in the wild is about six years, but in captivity many survive to 10-14 years of age.
Burt, W.H. and Grossenheider, R.P. A Field Guide to the Mammals. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 200pp.
Godin, A.J. 1977. Wild Mammals of New England. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 304pp.
Murie, O. 1954. A Field Guide to Animal Tracks. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 374pp.