Raccoons are rarely mistaken for other creatures. A raccoon has that distinctive black face mask going all the way across its eyes, and that’s outlined in white fur, making the mask stand out even more. Add in the dirty-yellow and black stripped and bushy tail, and a raccoon is difficult to misidentify.
Raccoons weigh from 10 to 30 pounds depending on where they live and what they are eating. They’re typically 2 to 3 feet in length (including an 8 to 10 inch ringed tail) and about a foot tall.
Another distinctive characteristic of a raccoon is its slender paws, with 5 toes on the front and back. Raccoons have sensitive paws, as well as thumbs. They dexterously use these to their advantage, manipulating objects as needed in ways other creatures can’t. Sometimes they will leave telltale paw prints as they travel on their way, looking like tiny 3 inch hands prints in the mud.
Woodland creeks and waterways are a favorite home for a rural raccoon, and they are known to be able swimmers. They often nest in a hollow of a tree, but can also be found in rock or log hiding spots.
Raccoons have one litter per year and gestate in 2 months or so. Their liters of 4 to 6 kits weighing 2oz each are often born in early spring. The young are deaf and blind at birth, but develop quickly, opening their eyes within 3 weeks.
Within two months they can scamper and climb, and are off with their mother on her nightly foraging trips a couple of weeks later. Young raccoons are particularly vulnerable to be killed until they develop in size, with any large animal being an opportunistic killer.
Developing raccoons can remain near or with their mother for up to a year before striking off on their own. The male has nothing to do with the kits, and will be chased off by the female if approached. A raccoon’s life span in the wild is uncertain, but thought to be up to 5 or 6 years. A zoo raccoon can live up to 15 years or so.
Raccoons are scientifically classified as carnivores, but their main advantage in survival into the 21st century in America has been their omnivorous diet. In the wild they will eat nuts and fruit, but also baby birds, bird eggs, insects, worms, frogs, crayfish and carrion to list a few of the items upon which they feast. Although rumored to have a need to wash their food, and they certainly display this curious and unexplained behavior, they do not need to be near water to feed.
Raccoons usually walk slow, their hind legs pushing them, but they can run quickly when the need arises. They are excellent climbers, quickly scurrying up and down trees, using their nimble paws to grab a hold as they navigate the forest.
They have excellent hearing, and good night vision, allowing them to hunt in the dark. Although they are nocturnal, they are not exclusively so, and can be found in the daylight.
Raccoons are fierce fighters, and will aggressively defend themselves. Large cats like cougars and bobcats, as well as wolves and bears were most likely their principle predators.
Sensitivity and Intelligence
A raccoon’s paw is highly sensitive. Nerve endings on the front paws allow it to feel and manipulate objects with nimble hands. And raccoons have thumb!
Raccoons are curious creatures, and scientists have rated their mental abilities beyond those of cats and dogs, and in the league with monkeys. The scientific community was more enthusiastic about studying raccoons at the turn of the last century when the field of comparative psychology was taking off. Michael Pettit has an interesting article on the early years of raccoon research, with a call for renewed research.
Raccoons put on fat, and settle down for the winter in their dens as the cold and snows approach. They do not hibernate like bears however, or enter into a near-death like deep sleep like chipmunks or ground squirrels do, but curl up and remain dormant until warm breaks in the winter cold bring them out to explore for food.