The other morning, I went to check the feeder and it was covered with dirty little paw prints and was bone dry. The culprit? Well, let me just say that he wears a mask, comes at night like a cat burglar, will eat most anything and has no fear of us or respect for our property.
You guessed it, a raccoon was the thief! The raccoon is the only member of its family occurring in North America and is widespread from coast to coast, north through the boreal forest, but is absent from the Hudson Bay Lowlands. It also ventures south into Central America. Occurring in every habitat from rural properties, to deep forests, to urban parks and yards, it is well known to us all. Cartoons have honoured its celebrity for decades, as its antics are exaggerated to amuse school children.
Being both terrestrial and arboreal, it can travel as easily through the trees as it does on land. Certainly not agile like a monkey, it can still climb high and fast, to escape predators and find food. Often it will sleep on strong high branches, or in holes in trees, essentially disappearing, as its gray grizzled pelage (fur) matches the bark colour almost perfectly. Plantigarde like bears and people, it walks on the soles of its feet, it is sure-footed and adventuresome.
Preferred foods include almost anything, for it is an omnivore. In its most natural state, it does choose semi-aquatic habitats as it hunts for insects, invertebrates, fish, clams and frogs, but being an opportunist a fresh garden salad, some carrion, a bit of food waste from your composter or garbage can, birds, small mammals, fruit, or nuts round out its diet. Oh yes; apparently it is attracted to sweet things, like the sugar-water mixture in my hummingbird feeder!
Myth Buster: Raccoons wash all their food before eating it; not! The raccoon is a tactile animal, and has an ability to determine whether a material is edible or not by touching it and rolling it around in its flexible front paws. Feeding along a stream, it will reach into the water and grasp something and then determine with its paws if it is edible or not. Unfailingly discarding bits of wood and debris in this manner, it chooses the tasty morsels insect larvae might represent.
The young are born after a gestation period of about 63-65 days, between March and May. The usual four young, are dependent on the female for months to come. A baby raccoon is born helpless and ‘blind’, and the face mask doesn’t appear until they are about 10 days old, the ringed tail when they are 19 days old.
They stay in the tree den, or sometimes attics, caves, stumps, or rock crevices for about 50 days before venturing out for food, always staying close to the female. Finally, when about 10 weeks old, they can take care of themselves, but will still travel with or near the female until the fall, when the family group breaks up.
Their affinity to adapt to urban environments is well-known and the media often picks up on their intrusions. Recently one was found at Pearson airport, inside the terminal, and clearly had found a way to exploit travelers’ leftovers. They can be very harmful and even dangerous if cornered, and have been linked to several diseases including rabies. Caution should always be exercised if one finds a “cute” baby raccoon. They may be adorable when tiny, but they are predators, with strong teeth and jaws, have great hunting instincts and strong problem solving skills. Don’t be fooled, and make sure you hide your ‘hummy’ food!!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.