Our mischievous neighbors, the raccoons

Raccoons, unlike their cousin the Ringtail (profiled last week), are a common sight. They have a rich history in the Americas. They are sometimes the tricksters in Native American folklore, while other tales have them possessing spiritual powers.

The name “raccoon” began as the Algonquian word “arakun,” meaning “he scratches with his hands.” American colonists dropped the “a” in the 1700s, and “arakun” became “raccoon.” My favorite word for the blackmasked bandits is “mapachitl,” an Aztec word meaning, “they take everything with their hands.”

Overhunting in the 1930s caused the raccoon population to decline drastically. However, their numbers have bounced back. They live across the U.S., and even in mainland Europe and Japan, where they were introduced and doing quite well.

They have adapted to living with humans. They quickly get over fear of people, and will come into your house searching for food, or rummage through your outside trash cans.

Raccoons are omnivores. They love corn and other garden vegetables. They also like chickens and eggs. However, their diet mainly consists of fruits and nuts, crawfish, insects, rodents, frogs, fish and bird eggs.

Raccoons prefer wooded or brushy areas close to water. They are nocturnal, sleeping during the day in trees, up high for protection. However, they will use burrows of other animals in a pinch. During winter they may sleep longer, but don’t hibernate.

The raccoon averages 13 pounds and a little over three feet. Their bushy, ringed tail makes up to half the length of body. Their color ranges from gray to reddish brown. They have excellent night vision, and can hear extremely well. They have that distinctive black mask over their eyes, and front and back paws with five toes.

While their front paws are famously dexterous, they do not have opposable thumbs. Their paws have vibrissae, thick hairs like whiskers, above their claws. The vibrissae allow them to identify objects before having to grasp them.

Raccoons have some unusual features, too. They can climb down trees headfirst by rotating their hind feet so they point backwards. A jump of 35 to 45 feet doesn’t bother them. They also both sweat and pant to dissipate heat.

They are very curious and highly intelligent. In studies, raccoons have shown they can remember solutions to problems for up to three years afterwards, as well as distinguish between amounts of objects.

Raccoons are not necessarily solitary creatures. Often, related females will share a common area. Unrelated males may live together in groups of up to four animals. The males band together to defend against other males during mating season. They don’t usually fight over range, especially if food is plentiful. Depending on where they live, a raccoon’s home range can be anywhere between several acres to nineteen miles.

Mating season lasts from February through June. In two months a litter of 3 to 7 kits, or cubs, is born. The cubs are born blind and deaf. After 70 days they are weaned. Their mother looks after them for a year, teaching them to hunt. They leave the den the next spring, but many times remain near their mother.

Despite their mother’s care, on average half the litter will not survive. To compensate for this, females will reach sexual maturity before they are a year old, allowing them to begin breeding early. Life expectancy is about one to three years. Hunting and traffic account for 90 percent of deaths.

Ever since the expedition of Christopher Columbus first encountered raccoons, they have been a source of fur and food. In 1931 the first edition of “The Joy of Cooking” was published. It actually contained a recipe for raccoon. El Camino Real Master Naturalists:

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