February 18, 2020

You would think any sensible raccoon would be snug in an underground den during the depth of winter but the truth is that raccoons don't sleep away the winter as do some of our other native animals.  Certainly when storms strike or temperatures plunge they may stick close to home through the worst of the inclement weather, but as soon as it improves they often venture out to forage for a meal. Then, too, January and February make up the bulk of the raccoon mating season across the northern part of the country and during warm spells the males travel about searching for hollows where females might have denned. When he locates one, he often moves in with her for a week or two before mating occurs, then leaves to search out others.

An ideal den site provides water nearby and offers protection from wind, rain, and snow. The most favored is usually not underground at all but a tree cranny. Even though the raccoon is surrounded by only a thin wall of wood, it is able to stay reasonably warm as its thick fur and layers of body fat provide excellent insulation.  The cubs are born in April and May, and they begin to forage for food with their mother at ten weeks. Young raccoons can live independently by autumn but sometimes remain with the mother until the following spring.

The mask of black fur that covers its eyes is the raccoon’s most familiar feature and is thought to help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.   Otherwise, the species has grayish brown fur, most which is dense underfur to insulate the animal against the cold.  Five to eight light and dark rings alternate on its tail, and because its hind legs are longer than the front legs, a raccoon often appears hunched when it walks or runs.

The raccoon’s hand-like paw consists of five agile "fingers" that allow the animal to unhook latches, open drawers, pry open garbage cans, turn screws, and clutch birds and crayfish. It can open holes into old buildings, pick insects from rotting tree stumps, and peel the husks from fresh corn. Each finger has millions of receptors on its underside and a large part of the raccoon brain is dedicated to computing and evaluating the information gathered by them.  Matt Gompper, an assistant professor of mammalogy at the University of Missouri-Columbia writes, "If you look at the portion of a raccoon’s brain that is dedicated to the forelimbs, it's disproportionately large compared to other species".

One of the common myths about the raccoon is that the animal always washes its food before eating it. Some observers suggested that it might lack saliva glands and need to moisten its food but this has been proved false.  The story evidently arose from observations of the animal using its sensitive paws to feel for prey under shallow water, but scientists who study such things contend that there are no reliable records of a wild raccoon actually washing anything. It is true, however, that captive animals often dip their food into any available water. 

Originally raccoons lived in the tropics where they could be found foraging along riverbanks as they hunted frogs and crustaceans. Over time they moved north up the continent, successfully adapting to new territories and expanding their diet.  Barns have aided their northern migration, offering refuge from cold northern winters, and now raccoons have been found as far north as Alaska.  The first city sighting was in Cincinnati during the 1920s and populations do very well in urban areas, primarily due to the lack of hunting and trapping, a general lack of predators, and an abundance of available human food. The size of a raccoon’s home range varies depending on habitat and food supply. 

In Wisconsin, like most of the country, raccoons’ adaptability has allowed them to move from their wild habitat to an urban life style. University of Wisconsin Professor David Drake writes, "When you think about all the open garages, all the decks we have on our houses, or sheds in the backyard, there are plenty of places where these animals can live.  Also, there is the great variety of food available to them as they will eat pretty much anything they can get their paws on, be it meat or vegetation.  They'll raid your trash cans and compost pile, in addition to their natural diet of nuts, berries, insects, bird eggs and small mammals like mice and voles," Drake continued.

Despite its troublesome reputation, Wisconsin author Sterling North offered a different picture of a raccoon in his 1963 autobiography about his childhood experiences adopting a raccoon cub he named Rascal.  The little animal moved into the house and gave the motherless child the affection and care he craved, and it proved to be an almost unbelievably intelligent and adaptable companion for many years. 

Years past when our corncribs were filled and inviting, we were sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by the raucous squabbling of a coon family as it made its way to the feast.  Now that we no longer stow corn, we seldom see them, but their tracks and occasional encounters prove they are still neighbors.  It’s true we don’t welcome them into the garden, but enjoy seeing their bright eyes reflecting back our headlights or flashlights, and matching wits to keep them out of the birdseed.