The common raccoon Procyon lotor is
probably best known for its mischievous-looking black face mask. Raccoons
are usually a grizzled grey in colour with a tail marked by five to 10
alternating black and brown rings. Body coloration can vary from albino,
(white) to melanistic (black) or brown. An annual moult, or shedding, of
the fur begins in the spring and lasts about three months.
The head is broad with a pointed snout
and short rounded ears measuring 4 to 6 cm. The eyes are black. Total body
and tail length for adults averages 80 cm; males are generally 25 percent
larger than females. Raccoons in northern latitudes tend to be heavier
(6 to 8 kg) than their southern counterparts (4 kg). However, fall weights
for adults have reached 28 kg in some areas.
Habitat and habits
Raccoons are able to live in a wide
range of habitats. The only apparent requirements are a source of water,
food, and a protected area for denning. The best habitats are hardwood
swamps, floodplain forests, fresh- and saltwater marshes, and farmland,
both cultivated and abandoned. On the prairies, raccoons are most abundant
in woodlot and wetland areas. This highly adaptable animal is also very
common in many cities of North America.
Movements and home ranges of raccoons
vary greatly depending on habitat, population density, and food supply.
The home range is the area used by an animal for food, water, and shelter
in its normal, day-to-day movements. In rural agricultural areas of eastern
North America, home ranges between 1 and 4 km2 are common, whereas in prairie
habitat, raccoons have used areas as large as 50 km2. At the other extreme,
the area used by urban raccoons has been documented at less than 0.1 km2.
Generally, home ranges of individual raccoons overlap, and there is little
evidence of territoriality, especially in urban areas.
As with home ranges, raccoon densities
vary significantly depending on the type of habitat. Estimates of five
to 10 raccoons per square kilometre are common in rural agricultural areas.
In urban areas, exceptional numbers of raccoons, as high as 100 per square
kilometre, have been recorded. However, densities as low as one per square
kilometre may occur in prairie habitat.
In the northern United States and
southern Canada, the annual life cycle of raccoons consists of a breeding
period during late winter and early spring, a growth and fattening period
during the summer and fall, and a winter denning period. In more southern
latitudes, winter denning occurs only during periods of poor weather.
Winter denning allows the raccoon
to conserve energy in the form of fat reserves when food is not available.
This is not hibernation, but a period of inactivity. The body temperature
does not drop, and the animal’s activity appears to be governed by the
air temperature. Preferred denning sites include hollow trees, stumps,
logs, caves, vacant groundhog or fox burrows, and buildings such as barns.
In city areas, denning sites include residential chimneys, sewers, garages,
attics, trees, and culverts. Adult males usually den alone, but the family
unit often dens together during the first winter. Communal dens containing
as many as 23 raccoons have been reported; however, four to five is more
common. Although usually one den is used during the winter, several different
dens provide sanctuary during other seasons.
The name raccoon is derived from the
Algonquian Indian word arakun, meaning "he scratches with his hand." The
species name, lotor, refers to the raccoon’s supposed habit of washing
food with its front paws. This activity, however, is probably associated
with the location and capture of aquatic prey such as crayfish. The behaviour
is no doubt innate, because captive raccoons have been observed attempting
to "wash" their food in the absence of water.
Because the raccoon can be easily
tamed when young, many people have had their lives enriched by a close
association with this intelligent, inquisitive animal. Males, however,
may become aggressive as they mature and usually end up being returned
to the wild. The raccoon is one of the few creatures that appears capable
of making the adjustment from family pet back to wild animal.
Six species of raccoons occur in North,
Central, and South America as well as on some of the Caribbean Islands.
However, Procyon lotor is found only in southern Canada, portions of the
United States, and Central America.
The species inhabits all provinces
of Canada except Newfoundland and Labrador and is gradually expanding its
range northward as land is cleared for agricultural purposes. During the
1930s the raccoon was successfully introduced into Germany and the Soviet
Union. Today, its range has expanded to include Luxembourg, West Germany,
the Netherlands, and France.
Raccoons are omnivorous and will consume
practically any food item, plant or animal. They prefer corn, crayfish,
fruits, and nuts, but there is a seasonal shift in diet depending on availability
of food items. During the spring, animal matter, including invertebrates,
or small animals without backbones, and insects, makes up the major portion
of the diet. While they prefer crayfish, raccoons also consume muskrats,
squirrels, rabbits, waterfowl eggs, and freshwater clams. In the summer,
plant material, including fruits and nuts, becomes more important. Wild
cherries, gooseberries, elderberries, wild grapes, strawberries, and garden
items such as potatoes and sweet corn are relished. They also eat frogs,
small fish, turtles, beetle grubs, grasshoppers, earthworms, crickets,
and snails during the summer.
Corn is the mainstay of the fall diet
in most areas where it is available; however, acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts,
and grapes are also consumed. Raccoons raid the nests of insects, including
hornets, bumblebees, termites, and ants, mainly for the larvae, or immature
stage. The raccoon’s thick fall and winter coat protects it from the stings
of irate adult hornets or bees.
The fall diet is extremely important
for raccoons in northern latitudes because they must accumulate sufficient
fat reserves to sustain them during winter denning. The raccoon builds
up fat over its entire body, even around the tail bone. It may be 2.5 cm
thick on the back. In fact, by late fall about half of the animal’s total
body weight may be fat. In northern areas the raccoon lives on its stored
body fat during the winter, but farther south where nuts and corn are plentiful
it continues to hunt for food year-round. In suburban areas, raccoons often
raid garbage bins or hunt for earthworms, beetles, and grubs on residential
lawns. Raccoons can also be a menace to farmers because they may eat domestic
fowl and eggs.
The breeding season generally begins
in late January or early February in the northern parts of the raccoon’s
range. Mating tends to take place in March in most areas. Birth of offspring
peaks during May, although births have been recorded as early as March
or as late as September. Year-round breeding has been reported for raccoons
in southern areas.
Male raccoons are polygamous, or will
mate with several females in succession. Females, however, are monogamous,
and will mate with only one male and will not tolerate other males after
mating has occurred. Juvenile females often breed during their first year.
Juvenile males, although capable, usually do not have the opportunity to
mate until their second year because of competition from adult male raccoons.
Litter sizes tend to be larger in the northern part of the range. Between
three and seven young per litter are common in northern latitudes; however,
litters of two or three young are usually the rule in southern areas. The
gestation, or pregnancy, period averages 63 days.
Raccoons are born without teeth and
with eyes closed, and they weigh approximately 75 g. The eyes open at two
weeks of age, and the teeth erupt at about 19 days. By about 10 days of
age the young are already sporting the familiar facial mask and colour
patterns typical of the species. The young remain in the maternity den
for about eight weeks and then leave to hunt for food with the female,
although they still nurse from time to time for almost two months. The
adult male plays no role in raising the young.
The family group, which consists of
the adult female and young, is quite sociable, hunting for food together
during the night and denning together during the day. The mother teaches
her young to climb, hunt, and swim during their first summer. The family
unit generally remains together until the adult female has her next litter,
usually the following spring. Juvenile males often disperse from the adult
female’s home range, although juvenile females may remain within the vicinity
of the mother’s range.
The life span of raccoons in the wild
is estimated at three to five years; most populations are completely replaced
over seven years. However, longevity records of 12 and 16 years have been
noted in captivity and in the wild, respectively.
Humans are the major predator of the
raccoon. They prize its fur and take between 2 and 4 million pelts annually
in North America. As well, automobiles kill thousands of raccoons each
year. Another major source of mortality is disease. Since 1983, several
thousand raccoons have succumbed annually to rabies in the mid-Atlantic
and southern United States. The disease is currently spreading north toward
Canada. As well, thousands of raccoons die annually from canine distemper,
particularly in eastern Canada and the United States. Parasites such as
lice, fleas, and ticks are often found on raccoons, but do not appear to
be a significant source of mortality.
Other raccoon predators include pumas,
bobcats, coyotes, foxes, dogs, wolves, Great Horned Owls, and fishers.
However, they are only a minor source of mortality. Malnutrition and harsh
winter weather play a greater role in limiting raccoon populations, especially
Although some records show that raccoons
may be long-lived in the wild, many animals succumb during the first year
of life to disease, starvation, wild predators, and trappers. In some areas
annual mortality rates for raccoon populations have been estimated at 50
to 60 percent.
Some people see the raccoon as a wily
and persistent pest. Raccoons often cause significant damage to agricultural
crops such as corn and lesser damage in orchards, vineyards, melon patches,
and poultry yards. They are considered undesirable in areas being managed
for waterfowl or upland game birds because they destroy nests and eat young.
In urban areas considerable damage to residential roofs, garages, gardens,
and lawns has been blamed on raccoons. Often the only solution is to remove
the offending animals by trapping or hunting. Problem animals are often
live trapped and moved to other localities. This practice, however, may
contribute to disease transmission. Recent studies have shown that relocated
raccoons travel long distances in short periods and are thus an ideal vehicle
for transmitting contagious diseases such as rabies.
Habitat improvement for raccoons should
include the provision of denning sites such as hollow trees and logs and
the planting of crops such as corn as a source of food. However, in city
areas little habitat management is needed because the raccoon adapts readily
to human-made structures for shelter or sanctuary. Raccoon populations
are thriving in most areas, and the species appears secure from any population
decline in the foreseeable future.