The Clever Northern Raccoon

August 9th, 2023

This week a carcass was found that created a stir for a short time. Upon first look, it appeared to possibly be a California Badger. This would have been the first sighting of one on the Mitigation Project Lands but upon further research and looking carefully at the skull structure and paws, I identified the dead animal as a Northern Raccoon, Procyon lotor. This inspired me to write a blog on this intrepid, adaptable, and sometimes fierce resident of our community.

Raccoons are mammals native to North America and are the largest member of the family Procyonidae. This family includes the Ring-tailed Cat and Coati. Their behavior is reminiscent of bears, but they are not related. The raccoon is the largest member of its family. There are seven species of raccoon in North America and twenty-five subspecies. The Northern Raccoon ranges from twelve to over thirty pounds. The characteristics that help to identify a raccoon are that it has extremely dexterous front paws with five long fingers, a dark facial mask, and a ringed tail.

Raccoons are a trickster spirit in many North American tribal traditions, particularly common in more light-hearted tales aimed at children. In some raccoon legends, he is portrayed purely as a mischief-maker, while the legends of other tribes focus on the raccoon using his cleverness and dexterity to escape from danger or acquire food. The name raccoon came from the Powhatan word “aroughcoune” which means “he scratches with his hands.” This speaks to the way a raccoon typically feels its way through the world.

Even though it is commonly thought that raccoons are washing their food because of their habit of dunking food in the water before eating it, biologists believe that a raccoon’s sense of touch is enhanced by water and that it is feeling for inedible bits to discard.

Raccoons are well known as a looter of gardens, cabins, campsites, and trash cans. Recent studies have shown that they are highly intelligent mammals that can remember a task for at least three years. This may be why they return repeatedly to a good trash can food source. Its paw tracks resemble human hands with five digits which makes it an excellent climber, capable of climbing a tree face first or backward. Even though it is a carnivore, the Northern Raccoon eats like an omnivore, much like a bear. Raccoons forage on fruits, nuts, and berries. They will also consume insects, frogs, clams, fish, eggs, young birds, and rodents.

Since raccoons do not hibernate, cold winters are an ecological barrier to habitat availability. Year-round food is needed but now that they have adapted to urban situations, the heated buildings and dumpster food scraps have allowed them to range further into colder areas. Their dens are often located in a hollow tree or a rock crevice. They are increasingly using sites beneath abandoned buildings or under discarded construction materials.

The Northern Raccoon is mostly active during the evening, but its tracks are easy to spot. They walk heavily on large pads and have five long toes which look like fingers. Look for these distinctive tracks anywhere you suspect raccoons have been.