|It’s a Raccoon’s Life
By Nancy Landry
Have you ever found your garbage pails mysteriously opened with their contents strewn all about, or your birdfeeders emptied overnight? Have you heard yowling, whoo-ooing, chattering, churring, whopwoping or clicking noises in the night? You might suspect a bear, an owl or a tomcat but this might also be one of our more familiar mammals of the Carolina mountains; Procyon lotor – the Raccoon. Solid in appearance and about 2 to 3 feet long, the animal usually weighs 10 to 30 pounds. Rarely, a few northern animals have weighed as much as 50 to 60 pounds. The raccoon is distinguished by his black mask, very dark eyes and heavily furred and black ringed tail. His body is covered with grizzled salt-and-pepper gray and black fur above, although some individuals have a yellow wash to their coat. He is very vocal and can demonstrate over fifty sounds and calls.
Raccoons are found throughout the United States and lower Canada except in the higher elevations of the West and arid areas of the Southwest. The heaviest populations are found in the wooded eastern portions of the continent. Wherever there is a plot of trees and water there can be found raccoons, but absence of a body of water doesn’t necessarily eliminate them from an area.
Soon it will be the raccoon birthing season here in the North Carolina mountains. Dens are found in hollow trees, ground burrows, brush piles, barns and accessible buildings, cattail clumps, haystacks or rock crevices. Most raccoon litters average 3 to 5 “kits” and most litters are born between April and May. The young are born with their eyes and ears closed, without teeth and with very little fur. By seven weeks of age they are furred and have good walking and climbing skills. Mothers lead their young from the dens at about eight weeks, when they begin to teach them how to find food. They still nurse until sixteen weeks old but also have learned to eat on their own. Mother raccoon and her young remain together during the first year and den together over the winter, separating the following spring.
Raccoons are most active between dusk and dawn when they look for food and, in late winter and spring, search for mates. The range for males can be from 3 to 20 square miles. Females occupy less area; from 1 to 6 square miles. They do not truly hibernate but do become inactive and stay in their dens during periods of severe winter weather. Raccoons may live in the wild for up to 12 years but this longevity is rare. Populations usually have a high percentage of young animals with up to one-half of fall populations composed of animals born that same year.
Raccoons are omnivorous and diet during spring and summer can include crayfish, clams, fish, snails, turtles and their eggs, mice, rabbits, muskrats and the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and waterfowl, frogs, salamanders, slugs and insects, especially grasshoppers. During the fall and winter, acorns make up a large portion of their diet. Also considered tasty to them are grains, all types of fruit, berries, nuts and corn. Although once thought that they washed their food, it is now believed they manipulate the food in water with very sensitive fingers and palms to facilitate identifying their food. They are good underwater hunters, using sensitive forepaws to fish for food.
Early settlers routinely hunted and trapped the raccoon. The fat was used in making a salve for cuts and burns, pelts were used for fur coats and hats and the meat was regularly eaten. The primary predator of the raccoon had been the wolf until we hunted and trapped him into extinction in most all of our states. Raccoon numbers have since recovered from the college raccoon coat fad of the 1920s and the Davie Crockett coonskin cap fad of the 1950s. Today’s predators of raccoons are humans, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, dogs and red wolves and for young raccoons, birds of prey such as owls and hawks; however, cars, malnutrition and disease kill the majority of raccoons.
Often, the raccoon is associated with damage to crops, bird feeders, birdhouses and sod in their search for food. They will set up dens in our homes and outbuildings if we allow entry. One answer to controlling damage is to call a Wildlife Damage Control Agent, licensed by the NC Wildlife Resource Commission and found in the Yellow Pages under “Pest Control”. Live trapping by private individuals is not allowed.
Below are some suggestions to control and minimize raccoon damage:
Tightly lash garbage cans and consider building a containment structure for cans.
Feed pets indoors; never leave pet food outside.
Bring bird feeders indoors each evening.
Cap all chimney flues.
Close up openings or secure loose areas of house fascia, siding, roof peaks and
Enclose the underside areas of low porches and outbuildings.
Trim tree branches that come in contact with your home.
With a few adjustments on our part, residents at Wolf Laurel can cohabitate with these furry bandit look-alikes. They have a place “in the nature of things”. We shouldn’t forget that they help to control mice and other rodents, snakes, rabbits, slugs, grasshoppers and other insects. They will also eat carrion when necessary. Their scat spreads fruit and berry seed over their range. We can admire them for their intelligence, rated as high as or higher than dogs. They are one of our amazing North American mammals.