Monday, December 1, 2008

Raccoon - Procyon lotor

Outside the front of our home, we have suet, thistle and another bird feeders hanging from a huge larch tree. My kitties and I enjoy watching the antics of all the birds outside feeding year round. Although I have not seen him, it seems like a raccoon is visiting and walking off with my suet feeder. I try to take it inside at night but when I forget, I usually have to hunt for it, finding it up the trail quite a ways from the house on the ground and empty. I know it is not a bear since the other feeders are carefully lifted off the hooks holding them on the tree branch. Bears will pull and break the hooks and feeders. Another sign it is a raccoon is the bird bath water is very muddy from the raccoon rinsing off his hands and food in the water.

The raccoon is one of the best known and most easily recognized mammals in our region. They are very adaptable and intelligent animals, capable of living in close proximity to humans. In North Carolina, raccoons are most common in the eastern coastal plain section because of the abundant wetland habitat.

Raccoons are medium sized mammals, with adults ranging in weight from about 8 to 20 pounds and a length of 28 to 33 inches. Male raccoons are generally larger than the females. The fur is relatively long with an overall coloration of grizzled gray to brownish black. The most distinctive features of the raccoon are the black-ringed tail and the blackish coloration on the front of the face which resembles a bandit's mask.

Raccoons are most common in and around wetland areas, where they search for small aquatic animals like crayfish and freshwater mussels in the shallow water. They find much of their food by feeling with their sensitive front paws, often while gazing off in another direction. They also have the habit of dunking their food items in water when available, leading some people to believe that raccoons "wash" their food before eating it. It is more likely though that this "washing" of food items by a raccoon is simply its way of feeling and inspecting the food with its tactile senses before swallowing. Besides aquatic life and other animal matter, raccoons also eat a variety of fruits, berries, and seeds. In suburban areas, raccoons often raid our garbage cans for food as well as backyard bird feeders and gardens. Raccoons are generally active throughout the year, becoming dormant in winter only in very cold regions of the country. They usually begin breeding in their first or second year during late winter. After a gestation period of about 63 to 65 days, raccoons give birth to a litter of 2 to 5 young. The den is usually located in a hollow tree cavity, burrow, or other secluded site. Baby raccoons are weaned at 16 weeks of age but usually remain with the mother until they are about 9 months old. The average lifespan in the wild of a raccoon is from 2 to 3 years but they have lived as long as 17 years in captivity:

Raccoons have long been hunted and trapped in much of North America. Early settlers hunted them for their meat and raccoon pelts were commonly used to make articles of clothing. 'Coonskin hats were often worn by the pioneers and even in this century, during the 1920's, raccoon skin coats were a major fad. Today, raccoons are much less likely to be pursued for their meat and hides, although they continue to be a popular game animal. Raccoon hunting is done at night when raccoons are most active. Specially trained dogs are often used to find and trail raccoons until they are "treed". Many modern day 'coon hunters simply like the thrill of the chase and the sounds of the baying hounds. Once treed, many of these raccoons are left to be pursued again another day. Regulated hunting of raccoons has much less impact on raccoon populations than other factors such as food shortages, parasites, and diseases. Many raccoons are also killed each year on our highways. Raccoons in our area often suffer from fatal outbreaks of canine distemper, especially in late winter, and are also one of the most likely wild animals to contract the deadly rabies virus. Any raccoon that appears to be disoriented and unafraid of people should be avoided.

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