Raccoon - Carnivora Procyonidae Procyon lotor
Identification & Description:
Raccoons make up the genus Procyon of the family Procyonidae. The common North American raccoon is classified as Procyon lotor, and the crab-eating raccoon as Procyon cancrivorus.
The raccoon is a reddish-brown above and black or greyish below. The most prominent characteristics are the bushy tail with 4-6 black or brown rings and the black mask outlined in white. The ears are small and the feet and forepaws are dexterous.
The name 'raccoon' comes from the Algonquin word 'arakun' which means "one who scratches with his hands". When raccoons were first identified as a species they were given the name Ursus lotor or "washer bear". After much debate in the scientific community their name was changed to Procyon lotor which translates as "washer dog".
An average specimen of the Common Raccoon is about 32 inches long including the tail and weighs 11 to 18 pounds. In the northern part of their range raccoons may weigh as much as 33 pounds. The largest specimen ever recorded was over 60 pounds! The life span of wild raccoons is not known but is estimated at seven years; in captivity they may live twice as long. Raccoons are omnivores and their diet includes frogs, crayfish, fish, birds, eggs, fruits, nuts, grains, small mammals and insects.
Although raccoons are primarily active after nightfall, they have been known to have periods of activity during the day as well, particularly in coastal areas or areas with little human presence.
Raccoons prefer to make their dens in hollows in standing trees but have also been known to use underground burrows. Their adaptability to the loss of habitat brought on by human development has led them to use abandoned buildings and vehicles as denning sites as well.
Raccoons are native to North and South America, ranging as far south as northern Argentina and as far north as southern Canada. It is most common along stream edges, open forests and coastal marshes. The northern limits of their range have been expanding in recent years due to increased agricultural activity in Canada. Raccoons have been introduced in Europe and Asia as well.
Within their range, raccoons inhabit the lower elevations, avoiding the particularly harsh winter conditions of the high mountains. There are six species of raccoons within the entire range and this info page will focus on the Common Raccoon which inhabits the United States and Canada.
Raccoons mate in mid-winter and kits (sometimes called "cubs") are born in early spring after a gestation period of 63 days. During the first weeks of their lives the young stay in the den with their mother. At about eight weeks of age young raccoons begin to accompany their mother on her foraging excursions and she teaches them how and where to find food, climb trees and avoid danger.
Summer is a time of great activity for raccoons with the kits playing, getting into mischief and discovering their world. Many sources of forage are at their most abundant in the summer. Dispersal of the kits usually begins in the fall.
Kits in northern areas may stay with their mothers until the next litter is born, while kits in southern areas normally disperse after three to six months.
Raccoons feed heavily in the fall months, putting on the extra insulating weight that enables them to survive the coming cold weather and scarcity of forage. Raccoons do not hibernate in winter though they remain in their dens more, only coming out to forage for an hour or so each day. During spells of bitter cold or extremely harsh conditions, raccoons do not venture out of the den at all, burning calories from the extra weight they put on in the fall until the weather becomes more agreeable.
The raccoon inhabits hollow trees and logs for homes and often use the ground burrows of other animals for raising their young or for sleeping during the coldest part of the winter months. An average of 4-5 young are born in April-May; the mother at first carries them by the nape of the neck like a cat; they are weaned by late summer. Omnivorous, it feeds on grapes, nuts, grubs, crickets, small mammals, birds' eggs and nestlings. Often seen washing their food, the raccoon is actually feeling for matter that should be rejected as the wetting of the paws enhances its sense of feel. Winter is the raccoons greatest enemy when food is scarce.
Raccoon, carnivorous mammal, found throughout the United States, southern Canada, and Central and South America, whose head is broad, tapering to a pointed muzzle, and whose ears are short and erect. The body is generally short and plump, with a long-haired coat of fur, and the tail is bushy. The legs are short; each foot has five toes, and the soles are naked. The animal walks on the soles of its feet with the heels touching the ground, similar to the practice of bears and humans. Raccoons are grayish-brown above and light gray beneath, with black cheek patches that narrow into a vertical stripe extending from the space between the eyes to the top of the head. The rest of the face is pale gray, with dark eyes and white whiskers. The tail is marked with six or seven brownish-black rings. A raccoon ranges in length from 0.62 to 1 m (2 to 3.3 ft), including its tail, which is 20 to 40 cm (8 to 16 in) long.
The common species found throughout the United States usually lives in trees or near ponds and streams of forests close to civilization. During the night it hunts for poultry, mice, birds' eggs, various insects, fish, and frogs. Occasionally it varies its diet with nuts and wild fruit. It is a skillful swimmer. Northern raccoons spend the winter in a den, usually high in a hollow tree, sleeping but not hibernating, and emerging during relatively warm periods. From four to six young are born in a single litter each spring, and members of the same family live and travel together for about one year.
The fur of the raccoon, especially that of the northern species, has been highly valued in North America since the 17th century. Coonskin caps, and coats and robes made of the coarse but attractive fur, are still worn today. Coon hunting is practiced extensively in the southern United States. The animals are hunted at night with dogs and are usually found near swamps or streams.