Living With Northwest Wildlife: Washington raccoons

<I>Photo by Ginger Holser</I><BR>Figure 1. Because raccoons manipulate and moisten food items in water, there is a misconception that raccoons "wash" their food before eating it. However, when water is not available, raccoons use many of the same motions in handling food.

The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is a native mammal, measuring about 3-feet long, including its 12-inch, bushy, ringed tail. Because their hind legs are longer than the front legs, raccoons have a hunched appearance when they walk or run. Each of their front feet has five dexterous toes, allowing raccoons to grasp and manipulate food and other items (Fig. 1).

Raccoons prefer forest areas near a stream or water source, but have adapted to various environments throughout Washington. Raccoon populations can get quite large in urban areas, owing to hunting and trapping restrictions, few predators, and human-supplied food.

Adult raccoons weigh 15- to 40- pounds, their weight being a result of genetics, age, available food, and habitat location. Males have weighed in at over 60-pounds. A raccoon in the wild will probably weigh less than the urbanized raccoon that has learned to live on handouts, pet food, and garbage-can leftovers.

As long as raccoons are kept out of human homes, not cornered, and not treated as pets, they are not dangerous.

Facts about Washington RaccoonsFood and Feeding Habitats

• Raccoons will eat almost anything, but are particularly fond of creatures found in water - clams, crayfish, frogs, fish, and snails.

• Raccoons also eat insects, slugs, dead animals, birds and bird eggs, as well as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Around humans, raccoons often eat garbage and pet food.

• Although not great hunters, raccoons can catch young gophers, squirrels, mice, and rats.

• Except during the breeding season and for females with young, raccoons are solitary. Individuals will eat together if a large amount of food is available in an area.

Den Sites and Resting Sites

• Dens are used for shelter and raising young. They include abandoned burrows dug by other mammals, areas in or under large rock piles and brush piles, hollow logs, and holes in trees.

• Den sites also include wood duck nest-boxes, attics, crawl spaces, chimneys, and abandoned vehicles.

• In urban areas, raccoons normally use den sites as daytime rest sites. In wooded areas, they often rest in trees.

• Raccoons generally move to different den or daytime rest site every few days and do not follow a predictable pattern. Only a female with young or an animal "holed up" during a cold spell will use the same den for any length of time. Several raccoons may den together during winter storms.

Reproduction and Home Range

• Raccoons pair up only during the breeding season, and mating occurs as early as January to as late as June. The peak mating period is March to April.

• After a 65-day gestation period, two to three kits are born.

• The kits remain in the den until they are about seven weeks old, at which time they can walk, run, climb, and begin to occupy alternate dens.

• At eight to ten weeks of age, the young regularly accompany their mother outside the den and forage for them selves. By 12 weeks, the kits roam on their own for several nights before returning to their mother.

• The kits remain with their mother in her home range through winter, and in early spring seek out their own territories.

• The size of a raccoon's home range as well as its nightly hunting area varies greatly depending on the habitat and food supply. Home range diameters of 1 mile are known to occur in urban areas.

Mortality and Longevity

• Raccoons die from encounters with vehicles, hunters, and trappers, and from disease, starvation, and predation.

• Young raccoons are the main victims of starvation, since they have very little fat reserves to draw from during food shortages in late winter and early spring.

• Raccoon predators include cougars, bobcats, coyotes, and domestic dogs. Large owls and eagles will prey on young raccoons.

• The average life span of a raccoon in the wild is 2 to 3 years; captive raccoons have lived 13.

Viewing Raccoons

Raccoons can be seen throughout the year, except during extremely cold periods. Usually observed at night, they are occasionally seen during the day eating or napping in a tree or searching elsewhere for food. Coastal raccoons take advantage of low tides and are seen foraging on shellfish and other food by day.

Tips for Attracting Raccoons

• Raccoons can be attracted to your property by providing natural food sources and living spaces. Suggestions include:

• Keep as much wooded property in a natural condition as you can. Large conifers should be given special protection.

• Where natural dens are scarce, den boxes can be installed on trees in wooded areas near water.

• Plant and protect native trees and shrubs that provide nuts, acorns, and fruits at different times of the year. These will be eaten while on the plants and after they have fallen.

• Protect creeks, streams, and marshes on and near your property from destruction and pollution.

• Build any size pond and stock it with fish. Install a birdbath at ground-level.

• Keep domestic dogs indoors or fenced.

Trails

Raccoons use trails made by other wildlife or humans next to creeks, ravines, ponds, and other water sources. Raccoons often use culverts as a safe way to cross under roads. With a marsh on one side of the road and woods on the other, a culvert becomes their chief route back and forth. Look for raccoon tracks in sand, mud, or soft soil at either end of the culvert.

In developed areas, raccoon travel along fences, next to buildings, and near food sources.

Tracks, Scratch Marks, and Similar Signs

Look for tracks in sand, mud, or soft soil, also on deck railings, fire escapes, and other surfaces that raccoons use to gain access to structures (Fig. 2). Tracks may appear as smudge marks on the side of a house where a raccoon shimmies up and down a downspout or utility pipe.

Sharp, nonretractable claws and long digits make raccoons good climbers. Like squirrels, raccoons can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees and descend trees headfirst. (Cats' claws don't rotate and they have to back down trees.) Look for scratch marks on trees and other structures that raccoons climb.

Look for wear marks, body oil, and hairs on wood and other rough surfaces, particularly around the edges of den entrances. The den's entrance hole is usually at least 4-inches high and 6-inches wide.

Droppings

Raccoon droppings are crumbly, flat-ended, and can contain a variety of food items. The length is 3 to 5 inches, but this is usually broken into segments. The diameter is about the size of the end of your little finger.

Raccoons leave droppings on logs, at the base of trees, and on roofs (raccoons defecate before climbing trees and entering structures). Raccoons create toilet areas - inside and outside structures -away from the nesting area. House cats have similar habits.

Note: Raccoon droppings may carry a parasite that can be fatal to humans. Do not handle or smell raccoon droppings and wash your hands if you touch any.

Calls

Raccoons make several types of noises, including a purr, a chittering sound, and various growls, snarls, and snorts.

Raccoons: Too Close for Comfort

If a raccoon ever approaches too closely, make yourself appear larger: stand up if sitting, shout, and wave your arms. If necessary, throw stones or send the raccoon off with a dousing of water from a hose or bucket.

If a raccoon continues to act aggressively or strangely (circling, staggering as if drunk or disoriented, or shows unnatural tameness) it may be sick or injured. In such a case, call a wildlife rehabilitator or your WDFW Regional Office.

If aggressive raccoons are routinely seen in your area, prepare your children for a possible encounter. Explain the reasons why raccoons live there (habitat, food sources, species adaptability) and what they should do if one approaches them. By shouting a set phrase such as "Go away raccoon!" when they encounter one, instead of a general scream, children will inform nearby adults of the raccoon's presence. Demonstrate and rehearse encounter behavior with the children.

If a raccoon finds its way into your house, stay calm, close surrounding interior doors, leave the room, and let the animal find its way back out through the open door, window, or pet door. If necessary, gently use a broom to corral the raccoon outside. (Do not corner a raccoon, thereby forcing it to defend itself.)

Preventing Conflicts

A raccoon's search for food may lead it to a vegetable garden, fish pond, garbage can, or chicken coop. Its search for a den site may lead it to an attic, chimney, or crawl space. The most effective way to prevent conflicts is to modify the habitat around your home so as not to attract raccoons. Recommendations on how to do this are given below:

Don't feed raccoons

Feeding raccoons may create undesirable situations for you, your children, neighbors, pets, and the raccoons themselves. Raccoons that are fed by people often lose their fear of humans and may become aggressive when not fed as expected. Artificial feeding also tends to concentrate raccoons in a small area; overcrowding can spread diseases and parasites. Finally, these hungry visitors might approach a neighbor who doesn't share your appreciation of the animals. The neighbor might choose to remove these raccoons, or have them removed.

Don't give raccoons access to garbage

Keep your garbage can lid on tight by securing it with rope, chain, bungee cords, or weights. Better yet, buy garbage cans with clamps or other mechanisms that hold lids on. To prevent tipping, secure side handles to metal or wooden stakes driven into the ground. Or keep your cans in tight-fitting bins, a shed, or a garage. Put garbage cans out for pickup in the morning, after raccoons have returned to their resting areas.

Feed dogs and cats indoors and keep them in at night

If you must feed your pets outside, do so in late morning or at midday, and pick up food, water bowls, leftovers, and spilled food well before dark every day.

Keep pets indoors at night

If cornered, raccoons may attack dogs and cats. Bite wounds from raccoons can result in fractures and disease transmission.

Prevent raccoons from entering

Keep indoor pet food and any other food away from a pet door. Lock the pet door at night. If it is necessary to have it remain open, put an electronically activated opener on your pet's collar. Note: Floodlights or motion detector lights placed above the pet door to scare raccoons are not long-term solutions.

Russell Link is author of "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest," Seattle: University of Washington Press and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. It is available by mail through the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Attn: Book Sales, 16018 Mill Creek Blvd., Mill Creek, WA 98012. Make checks for $25 payable to WDFW. This article was adapted with permission from the author from (wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/index.htm).

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