RACCOONS

Raccoons in the backyard
Mama raccoon watching for the 18-pound cat in the woodshed while the young explore. Photo by Anita Franklin in Oregon

Of all the mammals in your field guide, not many are distributed over a larger area than the raccoon. Also, raccoons, like opossums, have learned to survive in urban and suburban environments. Therefore, it's a good idea to be able to identify raccoon tracks, such as those shown below -- as well as the raccoon itself, shown at the right.

raccoon paw printNotice in the footprint that the hind print is a little larger than the front, the heal shows more in the back paw, and the prints look more like human handprints than perhaps any other prints commonly found in our area -- though they are only about two inches across.

In much of the U.S. raccoons are hunted for "sport," less as a food source than to see whose "'coon dog" is best at tracking and treeing them.

ARE RACCOONS SMART?

Raccoon in Mexico's YucatanOne reason hunters like chasing raccoons is that raccoons are a real challenge to catch. Raccoons have a bag of tricks to throw predators off their trail. While being chased by hounds sniffing their trail on the ground a raccoon may enter a stream where its scent is quickly washed away, walk in the water a distance, and then escape on dry land. Or it might climb a tree, follow a long, low-lying limb, and then jump back to the ground, thus breaking its scent trail. Or it may climb a narrow fence and run along the fence's top where most predators can't follow. This kind of "smart thinking" causes many people to assume that raccoons are extremely smart. Their ability to survive in towns only confirms the impression.

On the other hand, when a raccoon is surprised rummaging in your backyard and you very quietly cast a beam of light onto it, it very well may ignore the light and continue its nosing about. Make a tiny sound, however, or move upwind from it, and it'll instantly run away. Therefore, if raccoons are so smart, why don't they realize that if one moment it's dark, and then suddenly a blinding light shines onto it, probably this is bad news and it should run away? It's also interesting to ask, why do raccoons react so vigorously to sounds and odors, but not to changes in light intensity?

One answer is that during the raccoon's evolutionary history changes in sounds and odors often meant the approach of a predator, so raccoons evolved predispositions to react instantly to these stimuli. On the other hand, before humans with artificial light came along, how could raccoons evolve any predispositions with regard to abrupt changes in light intensity? The only bright flashes of light its ancestors knew were lightening and fireflies, and neither of these much affected the future evolution of the raccoon line. Therefore, raccoon brains just don't seem very concerned about flashes of light. Could it be that raccoons are actually "too dumb" to figure out that a sudden change in light intensity is probably bad news?

Most zoologists would say that a lot of what appears to be raccoon intelligence is in fact instinct of the same class as that which enables a duck to build a good duck nest, even though she's never seen a nest. Breaking a scent trail by wading in a stream, or climbing a tree and jumping from a low-hanging limb, or running along the top of a narrow fence all appear to be instinctual or innate behavior raccoons are born with. Innate behavior is behavior an animal doesn't have to learn -- it's just information carried in the animal's inherited genetic code...

WHY ARE RACCOONS SO COMMON?

As to why raccoons sometimes survive in towns and cities, the reason seems to be the same as for the opossum, which few people credit with having much intelligence: Raccoons eat just about anything that can be chewed and swallowed, including fresh corn in backyard gardens.

RaccoonDO RACCOONS WASH THEIR FOOD?

By the way, we often hear or read that raccoons don't have salivary glands, so they often dunk their food in water before eating it. It's true that raccoons often manipulate their food in or near water before eating it, but they do have salivary glands. In fact, when veterinarians check to see if a raccoon is infected with the rabies virus, saliva from the animal's salivary glands is checked with fluorescence micrography.

WHAT KINDS OF HOMES TO RACCOONS HAVE?

In the wild, raccoons like nothing more than hollow trees in which to make their dens, but also they'll den up in hollow logs, rock crevices, or ground burrows. They don't hibernate.

You may like to review books about raccoons available at Amazon.com by clicking here.

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