Masked Marauders

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According to this raccoon, a bird feeder is a perfect hangout.
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The thumbs of a raccoon's 'hand' are useful but not opposable.

For the third night in a row, the creature crept across the yard. Slowly easing toward its target, the marauder hugged the shadows making its way into the backyard. Beside the porch, my husband stood silent, shotgun braced against his shoulder waiting, waiting for the bandit to show its face.

They are cute, cuddly, mischievous and one of the most intelligent of wild animals. They also can be aggressive, vicious and destructive. Every year, more nuisance calls are received by wildlife control agencies for problems with raccoons than for any other animal.

Raccoon basics

The common (or northern) raccoon (Procyon lotor: washer dog) is native to North and South America and ranges from southern Canada to northern Argentina. Preferring lower elevations with milder climates and hardwood forests near water, the common raccoon is one of the most successful wild animals and is well adapted to encroaching urban sprawl. This is the raccoon that rummages in your garbage – or raids your sweet corn patch. The other two species are rare: The Tres Marias raccoon (P. insularis) is native to the Tres Marias islands located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico, and the crab-eating raccoon (P. cancrivorus) lives in tropical Central and South America.

Northern raccoons are unmistakable with their black mask around the eyes, bushy ringed tail and black paws with five toes. They are unusual in that their paws include a thumb (not opposable), which allows primate-like dexterity. Their fur is salt and pepper that ranges from grayish-brown tipped in black to a light gray. The average raccoon is about 2 to 3 feet long and weighs 10 to 30 pounds. The largest raccoon on record weighed 62 pounds.

Ravenous raiders

Raccoons are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal foods. Favored plant foods include all types of berries, fruits, nuts, acorns, corn and other types of grains. Animal foods include crayfish, clams, fish, frogs, snails, insects, turtles, mice, rabbits, muskrats, and the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and waterfowl. Raccoons do not actually wash their food, a common misconception. Because they have a highly developed sense of touch, they are actually manipulating or “softening” whatever they pick up. They are also known to roll their food in dirt if no water is available.

Reproductive rascals

Breeding season is normally from December through June with litters born primarily in May and June. Females have one litter per year with an average size of three to five kits or cubs. The young are weaned at 2 to 4 weeks but may stay with the mother until spring. Males are solitary and can range an area of 3 to 20 square miles, depending on availability of females and food sources. The female usually has a range of 1 to 6 square miles.

Raccoons are mostly nocturnal and like to make their dens in a hollow tree, an abandoned woodchuck burrow, a cave, barn, sewer, attic or under a porch. They do not truly hibernate during the winter but may “hole up” during really severe weather. Since 50 percent of their body weight is fat, they have the resources to last for several weeks or months without emerging from the den.

Raccoons make rotten pets

Raccoons are wild animals and rarely make good pets. Babies are similar to baby kittens and are very responsive. However, raising baby raccoons is a 24/7 job. They are very vocal and will scream, growl, whistle or mew. Since raccoons are naturally curious, they think nothing of opening doors, shredding upholstery and emptying a refrigerator on a regular basis. They do not understand the word “no,” and they will continue to explore, whether it be a Christmas tree or a valuable figurine set. In addition, raccoons have a life expectancy of 14 years, so raising a raccoon is a long-term commitment.

Raccoons also carry diseases like rabies, distemper and Baylisascaris procyonis (round worms that, when transferred to another animal such as a dog or human, may cause blindness, central nervous system damage and even death). In some states, if a raccoon bites or scratches someone, the animal is immediately killed and sent to a laboratory for testing.

As raccoons mature and come into season, both males and females will become aggressive, unmanageable and emit strong odors. Mature pet raccoons released into the wild rarely survive and usually die of starvation or because of their lack of fear of humans. Bottom line: Even though they’re cute, don’t keep raccoons as pets.

Problem raccoons

Unsecured trash cans, overfilled bird feeders and outdoor pet bowls are all potential food sources for the raccoon. In addition, chimneys, porches, decks and attics are all potential dens. Raccoon damage is often confused with skunks or opossums. Since raccoons are primarily nocturnal, the only evidence of their presence may be noises in the wall or their distinctive tracks.

Other raccoon signs around the farm are the heads of poultry bitten off and left some distance from the body, the missing legs or feet of young birds, eggs missing or drained. Damage to sweet corn is characterized by partially eaten ears with the husks pulled back. Raccoons will also break the stalks trying to climb to the ears. They damage watermelons and cantaloupes by digging a small hole in the melon and raking out the contents with their paws.

Damage prevention

The best solution to avoiding potential problems with raccoons is to make life uncomfortable for them. Limit their access to food and den areas around the farmstead. Because raccoons do not like bright lights, loud noises or strong odors, repellent methods that use these features usually work. Never leave unattended pet food or water outside. Secure all trash cans with latched or tight-fitting lids. Clear out all wood and brush piles, since they make good homes for the rodents that attract raccoons. Trim overhanging branches and remove unused television towers as the raccoon will use them to access attics. If a rag with cleaning ammonia is placed near the animals near sunset, the mother will immediately move her family on her own. Mothballs in the attic or trash cans will also cause the raccoon to move on.

Take care not to inadvertently separate a mother from her kits – the amount of damage she will do trying to get to them might surprise you.

One lucky bandit

My husband didn’t shoot our visiting bandit. I mistakenly let our dogs out the other door, and they ran the raccoon off- but it was only temporary. With his first attempt to eradicate the raccoon foiled, my husband turned to plan B.

The next night when the raccoon tipped over the trash can, he inhaled the scent of fresh mothballs. The raccoon sat back on his haunches, shook his head, glared at the window where my husband was standing, and waddled away. He has never come back.

Jane White grew up on a small farm in Michigan, working summers pulling weeds for a local gladiola farm. She spends her time writing and growing Hawaiian plumeria to sell at farmer’s markets. She and her husband, Robert, live on a small acreage near Detroit, with their Jack Russell terrier.

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