Raccoon

(Procyon lotor)

By Terry A. Messmer, Robert W. Seabloom, Richard D. Crawford, Karen L. Kriel and Ron A. Stromstad.
Photos by Ed Bry.

Description

The raccoon is a stocky medium sized mammal with a broad head, pointed snout and bushy tail. A raccoon is easily recognized by its black mask on a whitish face and the four to seven dark rings on its tail. Its gray to black pelage (fur) consists of long, moderately coarse, white and black banded guard hairs and short, fine, gray or brownish underfur. The belly is lighter colored. Their finger-like toes are long, thin and flexible giving the raccoon amazing dexterity.

Adult raccoons weigh from 10 to 30 pounds. Total body length, including the tail, of an adult raccoon measures from 26 to 40 inches. Adult females are usually smaller than adult males.

Young raccoons less than four months old can be aged by measuring the length of the ear and a hindfoot. Adult raccoons can be aged using dental characteristics to include counting annual growth rings in the roots of canine teeth and distinguishing the degree of tooth wear. Total body weight is a convenient indicator of age but is less reliable.

Life History

Most raccoons in North Dakota mate in early February and March. About 60 percent of the female raccoons breed and produce litters when they are one year old while males typically do not breed until their second year.

Raccoons do not form pair bonds. A male raccoon will typically associate and mate with several females each spring. The gestation period for raccoons is about 63 days with a litter averaging four to six young being born during April or May in a den prepared by the female.

Raccoons seem to prefer hollow trees and logs as dens hut often use abandoned ground burrows of other animals for raising their young as well as for sleeping during the coldest part of the winter months. The female will occupy the den where her litter will be born during the last few days before giving birth.

Raccoons are born with their eyes closed and are covered with hair, although the mask and tail rings are represented only by sparsely haired skin. The mask and tail rings become fully haired in two weeks.

When about two months old, the young begin accompanying the mother as she hunts for food. Young raccoons often remain with their mother throughout the year. Young males disperse from the area of their birth den at about one year old and may move several miles before establishing an area of their own.

The size of this area (home range) in raccoons may vary according to differences in sex, age, population levels habitat quality and season. In North Dakota, individual raccoons will occupy home range from less than one up to 18 square miles. Adult males usually occupy the largest areas and there is usually much overlap in the home ranges of adult males and females.

There is much variation in raccoons' daily activity patterns both by individuals and by season. Raccoons arc typically active from about sunset to sunrise. Although raccoons are not considered to hibernate, families do congregate in winter dens to sleep through severe winter periods. They prepare for this period of winter sleep by storing fat on their bodies during the late summer and fall.

Raccoons have a variety of calls. Their calls include hissing, barks and snorts which are uttered to express fear or as threat. In addition to these calls, raccoons may growl snarl and squeal.

Although some raccoons have lived up to 16 years in the wild, research indicates that the average life span is about three to four years. The principal causes of mortality in raccoons are man, predators, malnutrition and subsequently diseases such as canine distemper and rabies. The list of reported raccoon predators in North Dakota includes bobcats, coyotes, foxes and great horned owls.

Habitat and Food

The raccoon prefers wooded or brushy areas along lakes and streams but also thrives in farming areas where there are numerous wetlands. Raccoons prefer buildings and hollow trees for their dens hut will also use rock crevices, ground burrows, junk and rock piles as den sites.

The raccoon is an omnivore and thus eats a wide variety of foods. Preferred foods in North Dakota include grains insects, small mammals, eggs and young waterfowl, upland game and domestic poultry, crayfish and berries. The raccoon is widely known for its habit of "washing" food in water. In fact, its species name "lotor" means washer. Actually, raccoons do not always dunk their food, even when near water, and will not hesitate to eat when water is not nearby. Many theories have been proposed to explain this strange habit, but so far, raccoons are the only ones that are sure why they "wash" their food.

North Dakota Populations

The raccoon is found throughout North Dakota but is most abundant in the eastern half of the state. The raccoon has benefited from agricultural development and is more numerous and widely distributed now than in the 1800s. Raccoons are considered a furbearer in North Dakota and as such are hunted and trapped for recreation and their pelts.

Occasionally raccoons are accused of causing agricultural damage. Most of this damage is restricted to gardens, orchards, cornfields, melon patches and chicken yards. In addition, raccoons are sometimes regarded as serious threats to wood duck nesting. The use of electric fences to prevent this excellent climber from gaining access will eliminate most problems.

Click TRACKS to view a picture (15K) of the tracks made by a raccoon.