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Raccoon
(Procyon lotor Linaeus)

From: Saunders, D. A. 1988. Adirondack Mammals. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 216pp.

Order: Carnivora

Family: Procyonidae

Description: A bushy tail marked by 5-7 black or dark brown bands or rings, and a black facial mask with a light border, distinguish this medium-sized animal from other Adirondack mammals. The fur is rather coarse with long guard hairs overlaying the dense underfur. Above, the raccoon is a grizzled gray, brownish gray, or yellowish gray. The underparts are paler. Individuals differ substantially in the degree of yellow, brown, or black, present in the fur. Rufous, albino, and black color phases occur but are rare. The head is broad with a pointed muzzle, black nose, dark eyes, and slightly pointed, erect ears. The 5 toes of each foot are slender and have sharp claws. The soles of the feet are naked. Adults weigh about 4.1-13.6 kg (9-30 lbs). Males are heavier than the females. The tail comprises about one-third of the 72 -104 cm (28.3-41.0 in) total length.

Range and Habitat: The range is from southern Canada south to Panama except for parts of the northern Rocky Mountains, Southwest, and Great Basin. The raccoon is an uncommon to abundant resident throughout the Adirondack Park where it prefers areas near water. These include deciduous forests and woodlands, agricultural lands, marshes, swamps, and to a lesser extent, mixed forests. The raccoon is uncommon or absent in coniferous forests above 762 m (2500 ft.). This species frequently inhabits the Park’s cities, towns, and hamlets.

Each raccoon dwells in one or more dens which may be located in tree cavities, the abandoned burrows of other mammals, rock crevices, deserted muskrat houses an beaver lodges, caves old mines, farm buildings, storm sewers, hollow logs, and in residential areas, even chimneys.

Food and Feeding Behavior: The toes of the front feet of the raccoon are not only long and slender, but they also possess a highly developed sense of touch, and play large role in the raccoon’s harvest of plant and animal foods. The notion that a raccoon washes or must moisten food is a myth. Salivary glands are well-developed and the tendency for this mammal to manipulate food items in water is not related to a need to wet or wash them; in fact, many foods are consumed unmoistened. Much of the activity probably functions in locating, capturing, identifying, and orienting (placing in the mouth) food.

Raspberries, black cherries, beechnuts, acorns, corn, apples, and fungi are some plant materials prominent in the diet of the omnivorous raccoon. Birds such as ducks and their eggs, turtles and their eggs, mice, voles, bats, cottontails, muskrats, ground and tree squirrels, fish, snakes, and frogs are examples of raccoon prey. Invertebrates (insects, earthworms, freshwater mussels, and especially crayfish) are a major dietary component, too. The raccoon eats both the flesh of dead animals (carrion) and garbage. Raccoons, like bears, may enter homes and camps in the Adirondacks and pilfer food supplies, and in autumn, consume quantities of sunflower seeds from feeding stations. This animal is well-known for its fondness for raiding sweetcorn patches.

Activity and Movement: Activity occurs mostly at night, and during any month of the year. However, in this part of the range, the raccoon may spend most of the winter sleeping in its den, emerging to forage only during mild spells. Extensive foraging prior to winter results in fat reserves which supply the energy for inactive periods. his inactive phase may extend through most of December-February.

Raccoons walk, trot, or run on the soles of their feet. Their speed while running is about 16-24 km/h (10-15 mph), a pace they do not usually maintain for long. The normal means of escaping danger is by climbing the nearest tree, and raccoons are skilled in rapidly moving up the tree trunk. Raccoons, by rotating their hind feet, can descend from trees head-first. This species is an expert swimmer and can swim long distances.

Reproduction: Raccoons mate in the late winter or early spring. The gestation period is approximately 63 days. Females give birth to the annual litter of 1-8 (average 2-5) in the den, which in the case of tree cavities, may contain sparse bedding of shredded wood. Newborn raccoons weigh 60-75 g (2.1-2.6 oz.), and have some hair present. The eyes, closed at birth, open 18-24 days later. Young raccoons begin to leave the den and accompany the female at 8-12 weeks of age when weaning commences. Some young continue to nurse for several months, but eat solid food as well. Dispersal may take place in autumn, or more commonly, the following spring. The young may den with the female until they become independent. Young of both sexes may breed as yearlings or as two-year olds. Potential longevity is 17 years, but few raccoons live beyond 6 years in the wild.

Predators: The coyote, fisher, bobcat, red fox, and great horned owl prey upon raccoons, taking more young than adults.

Social Behavior:

  • Social system - Raccoons are promiscuous. A male may associate briefly with a female during the breeding season, but after mating, each may copulate with additional mates. Females with young, and occasionally, sibling groups (usually pairs of non-breeding yearlings of the same sex) are the only social units. Adults are solitary except when breeding. The home ranges of both sexes may overlap or males may exclude other males. Available dens and food, sex, age, season, and weather determine home range size which can vary from 5 ha (12.5 ac) in residential areas to 5000 ha (12,500 ac) in grasslands. A home range of 40-100 ha (100-250 ac) is typical. Males have larger home ranges than females. Densities vary greatly, but average one raccoon per 5-43 ha (12.5- 107.5 ac). Local populations may fluctuate. Hunting and trapping of this important furbearer, malnutrition, diseases such as canine distemper, and possibly, interactions with other predators contribute to declines.
  • Communication - Anal and other glands are present, but their role in regulating social behavior is unknown. Visual displays convey motivation in social encounters. Motor patterns and posturing such as tail lashing, lowering the head, baring the teeth, arching the back, and erecting the hairs on the back are examples of threat and submissive signals in the hostile encounters that may progress to fighting. Hisses, screams, yowls, growls, and barks may accompany aggressive behavior. The black mask may enhance night vision which is excellent, but the contrasting patterns of both face and tail may also serve as important species-recognition characters or as optical reinforcers during display. Purrs, twitters, and other sounds are contact and distress calls of young raccoons.

Additional References

Barash, D.P. 1974. Neighbor recognition in two ̶solitary” carnivores: the raccoon (Procyon lotor) and the red fox (Vulpes fluva). Science 185:794 – 796.

Fritzell, E.K. 1978. Aspects of raccoon (Procyon lotor) social organization. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 56:260 – 271.

Kennedy, M.L. and S.L. Lindsay. 1984. Morphological variation in the raccoon, Procyon lotor, and its relationship to genetic and environmental variation. Journal of Mammalogy.65:195 – 205.

Lotze, J.H. and S. Anderson. 1979. Procyon lotor. Mammalian Species, 119:1 – 8.


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