Critter Profile: the Northern Raccoon | Part 1
When I was a boy my understanding of raccoons was encapsulated by Ranger Rick. Do you remember the magazine? Each month I’d look for my glossy copy in the mail and explore the world of wildlife from desert to mountain to tropical rainforest. I’m happy to say it is still being published!
From what I remember, as a youngster I thought of raccoons as fuzzy, furry like stuffed animals, loveable, and perhaps cuddly as well. Little did I know that one day my profession would involve catching them! And those are not quite the same adjectives I would use now. Customers and the public alike are often interested to know more about the critters I work with. This two-part article will introduce some of the notable behaviors, biology, and ecology of what is scientifically known as the Procyon lotor, also known as the North American raccoon, trash bandit or night raider.
Natural and Urban Habitats
Raccoons range throughout the United States and are found in all parts of Iowa. In their natural habitat they often den in the hollows of trees, in brush piles, and in abandoned burrows. Groundhogs often lose their dens to raccoons. They are highly adaptable, so have no problem lodging in urban areas. It’s not uncommon during dusk and dawn to catch sight of a raccoon emerging from a sewer drain as these areas provide protection, a fairly stable temperature, and cloaked navigation. Raccoons are expert climbers, and often explore built structures. They often take advantage of vulnerabilities on a roof, such as membrane roofing, chimney flues and roof overhangs. These become entry points into the attic or other interior voids. Pregnant raccoons frequently scope out these areas in the late winter months in preparation for their babies.
Every year I receive a number of phone calls from concerned individuals who have spotted a raccoon during daylight hours. Each time I receive a call my mind runs through all sorts of scenarios of why a healthy raccoon might be out during the day. Several reasons come to mind. During the late spring months, a mother raccoon might be spotted as the sun treks across the sky. Undoubtedly, one reason is that she is chugging through more calories and liquids as she nurses her babies. I’ve also witnessed how demanding a clutch of young can be prior to weaning, so sometimes it appears mother will leave simply to get some well-deserved rest!
Jumping later into the year, we find that the late fall months put greater demands on raccoons. They instinctively understand that colder, rougher times are ahead. They develop an enormous appetite to pack on the calorie-rich fat needed to keep warm and to offset the drop in available food during the winter months. Outside of these two common scenarios, sometimes a healthy raccoon will wander around under full sun and no good explanation presents itself. I’ve been called in to catch such raccoons, and after an evaluation I determine there are no symptoms of distress, disease, or injury. Some raccoons just like to be the anomaly.
Raccoons are at the top of their food chain in part because they have mastered their food gathering skills as both scavengers and predators. As omnivores, raccoons derive animal proteins from wild sources such as vertebrates, crayfish, insects, and snails. Their diets vary by season. In the spring and fall, non-urban raccoons feed heavily on field corn, the summer months favor berries and fruits.
In urban settings they forage through garbage cans and dumpsters at restaurants and Home Owner’s Associations. I once received a phone call from a property management group asking me to go and remove a raccoon from a large dumpster. Once arriving on site I called to inform them that their information had been wrong. There wasn’t a raccoon, there were four raccoons. These juveniles knew how to climb in, but it was an empty dumpster and they couldn’t navigate out!
There is also the unsightly side of raccoon predation. During the spring months the male adults will seek out and consume young raccoons. Mother raccoons instinctively know of this cannibalistic behavior, and will often fight to the death to defend her young. Nature is often unkind! As scavengers, raccoons will target just about anything with caloric value. Raccoons are known to feed from food left behind by other animals. They also like to raid birdfeeders, pet food bowls, and rummage through gardens and flower pots. Many raccoons even learn our schedules, knowing when the trash is put out and when to raid the dumpster before the garbage truck arrives.
Raccoons that are born in the spring are able to breed the following winter. Breeding activity is usually in February, though the seasonal conditions each year may shift this window earlier or later in the year.
With a gestational period of around nine weeks, babies are typically born in late April or in May. A typical litter will range between four and eight offspring. When my phone rings in the spring I might learn of reports of chittering or cooing sound emanating from the wall or ceiling. Mobile homes often hear these sounds in the floor.
During the first weeks after birth, the cubs (kits, or pups) will stay in the nest. In fact, the newborns eyes are shut tight until around Day 12, which certainly discourages wandering too far. This makes it much easier for me to find, remove, and have confidence that all were rounded up. Mother will nurse the young regularly, heading out to forage and hydrate. She will eventually start taking the young out to teach them the ropes on how to track down and gather food. These are important skills to learn from mom. This period, which includes weaning off mother’s milk, occurs a couple of months after the babies are born.
It is notable that during the weaning period, the number of surviving offspring drops. When I’m called in to retrieve babies in June, it’s common to find only 2-4 babies, and sometimes only one. Again, nature isn’t always kind. One other point worth mentioning: though rare, females will sometimes give birth during the summer months. I don’t think it is ever the case that raccoons will have two normal birthing cycles in the same year. Rather, the pregnancy that started in the late winter may not go full term, so it is given a second go.
We have covered several raccoon topics: their natural and urban habitats, seasonal activities, food preferences, and reproduction. This article looked at raccoons from a biological and ecological angle. Part II of this article focuses on raccoon and human interactions: signs that they have infiltrated, disease and health risks, common types of damage, and tips to discourage their activity near your home.
How about a few resources for further study?
Animal Diversity Web: Northern Raccoons
Iowa DNR News Release: Cool things about raccoons
Iowa DNR News Release: Handle nuisance wildlife responsibly
 Robert Richard Costa, "Food habits of the raccoon, Procyon lotor hirtus N. and G., in central Iowa" (master's thesis, Iowa State University, 1951), 39. Accessed 8/2/2018, https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd/18092/
Joe Taylor, M.S. Science Education, B.S. Biology, is a full time nuisance wildlife control operator in Eastern Iowa, and owner of Paw Control, LLC. Follow him on Twitter: @pawcontroller at LinkedIn, or the Paw Control blog: https://www.pawcontrol.com/blog