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By John S. Powers, Area Wildlife Biologist
Raccoons (Procyon lotor), often referred to simply as ‘coons, are widespread and widely recognized animals. Raccoons are found throughout the United States, as far north as central Canada, and as far south as Panama. Their overall brownish coloration; stubby, black banded tails; and the black mask-like marking around their eyes make them pretty much impossible to forget once seen. The raccoon’s distinctive appearance combined with its relatively small size (around 15 lbs. for adults), a somewhat cute, cuddly demeanor, and its often waddling movements have made it a star on both television and the big screen.
Though they are rarely if ever cast as the “bad guy,” raccoons are almost always portrayed as more than a little on the mischievous side. Generally speaking, if something is eating out of or turning over the trash cans, the odds are good either ‘coons or bears are involved (the neighborhood dogs would be far too boring). The star power they enjoy means that even those who have never seen a live raccoon in the wild (as it should be) or as “road kill (as it too often is) have at least a superficial familiarity with the species.
Many people are familiar with raccoons at a much more personal level. Raccoons are classified as both a game species and as a fur bearer in Alabama. As such they are both hunted (most often using hounds) and trapped either as nuisance animals or for their fur, for which there is still a limited market. A lot has changed since the time ’coon skins were as good as cash for trappers, explorers, settlers, and Native Americans alike. Though both ‘coon hunters and trappers in general have dwindled in number, few outdoorsmen of any sort haven’t encountered raccoons up close and personal. However, for those who have no desire to experience the great outdoors, raccoons will gladly bring part of the great outdoors to them.
While many species of wild animals have struggled to cope with the changes man has brought to the landscape, raccoons are not one of them. Raccoons have not only adapted to man-made changes, but have, in many ways, seemed to embrace them. They have made themselves at home virtually everywhere from the quiet suburbs to big city streets finding all the necessary components for survival already in place.
Water is almost universally available in both urban and suburban environments. Water from a ditch, storm drain, bird bath, or dog bowl may not seem as appealing as that from a stream, creek, pond, or lake, but it serves the same purpose and may well be no more contaminated. Food is no big challenge either. Raccoons are generalist omnivores (they eat both plant and animal material) with a heavy emphasis on generalist. Simply put, they will eat almost anything of nutritional value. In the wild, their diet consists of berries, fruits, acorns and other nuts, some roots, small mammals, birds, bird eggs, insects, crayfish, and other invertebrates. Many of these items are readily available in urban habitats, but where they are not, raccoons willingly substitute what’s handy. There is a lot of truth in those trash can scenes. The dog food and bird seed isn’t safe either.
Den sites are not hard to find in areas man calls home either. Woodland dwelling raccoons most often use hollow trees, hollow logs, brush piles, and dens in the ground for both shelter and raising their young. Typical shelter sites may be relatively common in suburban and even urban areas, but if they are lacking, raccoons will use spaces under houses, attics, abandoned buildings, blocked culverts, and similar enclosed spaces in their stead. Breeding by raccoons in Alabama peaks in April and litters (usually 2-4 young) are born about 60 days later.
Though they may seem cute and cuddly, and while they may have come to live among us, raccoons remain wild animals and should be treated as such. In urban and suburban situations they become accustomed to the sight, sound, and smell of humans, and may even become somewhat casual in their effort to escape when humans appear. All of that aside, any raccoon that doesn’t retreat when approached by man or one which behaves aggressively toward people should be avoided. Raccoons are subject to rabies and may transmit the disease to humans by a bite, a scratch contaminated with saliva, or by transfer of their blood to a persons open wound. Further complicating the matter is the fact that they can carry the disease for an indeterminate time before showing symptoms of the disease themselves.