The raccoon, a relative of the bear, belongs to the Procyonidae family. Its scientific name (Procyon lotor) means “before the dog” and “washer”. The Algonquin Indians called the raccoon “Arakunem”, meaning “he who scratches with his hands”. There are two sub-species of raccoon in eastern Canada. One is found east of Lake Superior and the other, which is larger and darker, occur west of Lake Superior. Western sub-species include one from Vancouver Island, and one from southwestern British Columbia.
The raccoon is native to South America, the United States and southern Canada, and has been introduced to the Soviet Union. It is not found in Newfoundland or on Cape Breton Island, but inhabits the rest of the Maritimes, southern Quebec, central Ontario, the aspen parklands of the prairies, and southern British Columbia. Records show that there have been sporadic occurrences of raccoon in northwestern Ontario (around the Winisk River and Severn River areas) and northern Manitoba.
The raccoon is famous for its bushy tail with the four to six prominent black rings, its sparkling black eyes, and the black mask over eyes, nose and cheeks which gives it the look of a mischievous bandit. Its skull is broad and its face tapers from the short, rounded, white-tipped ears to the button-like nose. Its short legs end in narrow, hairless paws that, as its Algonquin name suggests, remind the human onlooker of hands. But these distinctive features, though lending the raccoon an appealing quality, have another purpose. This furbearer is an excellent example of the adaptation process, which fits an animal for its environment. The raccoon’s keen vision equips it both for daylight activities and for nocturnal wanderings. Its eyes flash like a cat’s in the dark, when suddenly illuminated. Its hearing is acute, and its muzzle, digits and claws have a well-developed sense of touch. The non-retractable claws, sensitive digits and sharp teeth are all well adapted for climbing, fighting off enemies, catching and eating prey and devouring carrion. Its dark coat provides camouflage at night. The male raccoon is larger than the female. The body of the average adult measures from 73 to 95 cm (28.8 to 37.4 in), and its tail adds another 22 to 25 cm (8.7 to 9.9 in) to its length. The typical male weighs 8.6 kg (18.8 lbs) and the typical female, 7.5 kg (16.5 lbs). The heaviest raccoon ever reported weighed 28 kg, or over 60 lbs.
The female raccoon is sexually mature by the first spring after birth, and has one heat period each year. The male does not reach sexual maturity until his second year. Mating takes place between January and early March, depending on the climatic conditions. During this time, the male travels as much as 25 km (15 mi) a night in search of a mate. The male may take more than one partner during the breeding season. The young are born between mid-April and mid-May, following a 63-day gestation period. The litter may contain from one to six infants. The statistical average is 3.5. The new-born are furred everywhere except on the tail. Born blind, they are able to climb trees with their mother to escape danger even before they can see. Their eyes open at three weeks, and at six weeks they are ready to leave the nest and explore. By two months of age, the young are able to forage for food with their mother. The family remains together on the mother’s home range throughout the winter. By early spring and just before a new litter is born the young are ready to set off on their own. The adult male has a larger home range than does the female. The home range for both males and females usually varies between 2.5 square km and 7.5 square km (1 to 4 square mi). The raccoon can live to the age of 14 years in the wild.
Raccoon prefer forested areas near water. They may be found in river valleys, on farmland and in urban localities. They usually live in hollow trees and logs, caves, barns and other farm outbuildings, culverts, drainpipes or the burrows of other animals. Three den types are used: refuge dens, brood dens and over-wintering dens. Elm, maple, oak, bass and sycamore are good den trees. Lined with leaves or wood chips, the den is usually more than 3 m (10 ft) above the ground. The entrance is from 18 to 43 cm (7 to 17 in) in diameter and always faces away from prevailing winds.
Food and Feeding Behaviour
The omnivorous raccoon eats young birds, birds’ eggs, small mammals, carrion, poultry, fish, frogs, shellfish, insects, fruits, nuts, berries and corn. It is known for pilfering through garbage in urban areas.
The raccoon’s habit of handling its food in the water before eating it is reflected in the second part of its scientific name: lotor or “washer”. It is at home in the water, swimming as proficiently as it climbs. It is capable of drowning a raccoon-hunting dog by climbing on to its head. More social by nature than the fisher or the marten, raccoon forage and den as family units until the young leave home. At temperatures below freezing, they retreat to their dens and remain inactive until it warms up. This is not true hibernation, since they will emerge from their dens on warm winter days. Raccoon do not stay in any one den type or at any one den site for extended periods. Rather, they move among a variety of dens including the on-ground dens used in summer, in-ground dens and tree dens.
Unlike many other furbearers, raccoon are hunted in large numbers with hunting dogs. Hunting and trapping are the major factors controlling the population, but starvation can also be a cause of death, particularly during a long winter. The young are most susceptible to starvation, principally because they have fewer body reserves than adults do. Raccoons of all ages lose half of their weight over the winter months. Extensive periods of cold weather limit the northern boundary of their range. Deep snow and cold also affect reproduction by preventing travel, thus making it impossible for males to seek out mates. The many parasites, which afflict the raccoon, can sometimes have an effect on the population. Ectoparasites such as ticks, lice, mites and fleas are common and, for this reason, trappers should hang raccoon and spray them with a household insecticide before skinning them. Blood parasites, roundworms, tapeworms and other parasites may be found in the body. Parasites alone are seldom a major cause of death, but, in conjunction with over-winter starvation, can cause significant reductions in the population. Diseases such as distemper, encephalitis, rabies, tuberculosis and skin ailments can also reduce raccoon numbers. Raccoon distemper, in particular, has caused serious problems in some parts of the United States. Trappers experiencing flu-like symptoms requiring medical attention should always advise their doctors of their trapping activities.
The management of raccoon involves ensuring both the presence of necessary habitat conditions and the maintenance of the population at the desired level. The essential elements of optimum raccoon habitat are a permanent water supply, trees and barns for denning, and food. Dens or buildings occupied by raccoon are usually within one-quarter mile of water. Ideally, there should be one suitable tree per acre available for their use. The destruction of den trees by landowners should be discouraged. Although den trees may not be essential for refuge or over-wintering, they may be very important sites for brood dens. They offer more protection from predators than can be had in ground dens or dens in buildings. Re-stocking, or re-locating raccoons, has not generally proved a successful management technique. Raccoon are already present in most areas of Ontario that offer suitable habitat and climatic conditions. There may be pockets in which hunting and/or trapping pressures have eliminated the local raccoon population, and in which restocking could be called for. However, it is probable that such sites would quickly become re-populated naturally. The dates of the raccoon trapping season reflect the fact that harvesting should not take place when females are pregnant or the pelts are not marketable. Trappers can assist in the effective management of the population by concentrating on their trapping efforts in areas in which raccoon are a problem to farmers and landowners. A group of raccoon can inflict significant damage to local corn crops. The raccoon is native to South America, the United States and southern Canada, and has been introduced to the Soviet Union. It is not found in Newfoundland or on Cape Breton Island, but inhabits the rest of the Maritimes, southern Quebec, central Ontario, the aspen parklands of the prairies, and southern British Columbia. Records show that there have been sporadic occurrences of raccoon in northwestern Ontario (around the Winisk River and Severn River areas) and northern Manitoba.