The adaptable raccoon has learned to prosper—even in our capital.
Raccoon Facts and Habitats
It would be stretching things to say that raccoons are taking over Washington, D.C. But not by all that much. Dr. John Hadidian, an urban wildlife specialist at the National Park Service's Center for Urban Ecology in Washington, estimates that more than 600 of the ring-tailed creatures make their home in the capital city's 1,700-acre Rock Creek Park alone. And though the city's roving raccoons won't hold still for a head count, their total D.C. population may top 8,000. That's a lot of scurrying things to go bump in the night.
It's not so much that raccoons are enamored of the Reagan administration, Congress, or the masses of humanity D.C. has to offer. It's just that the intrepid little beasts are so remarkably adaptable that they don't know when, or where, to quit. In fact, the raccoon is possibly the most adaptable wild mammal in North America, having firmly established itself from southern Canada to Central America, and in all 48 contiguous states between.
The name raccoon comes from the Algonquian arakun, meaning "scratcher." And scratchers coons most certainly are. Equipped with five long, nimble, unwebbed fingers on each forepaw, they're extremely touch-oriented creatures. But the German name for the animal is even more descriptive: wasberen, or "wash bear." Not only does the raccoon resemble a small bear in appearance, habit, appetite, and the human-like tracks it leaves behind, but it can claim at least a tenuous genetic relationship to the bears in that it belongs to the same family (Procyonidae) as the lesser panda (genus Ailurus) of eastern Asia.
The raccoon's scientific title is Procyonlotor. Procyon is Latin for something like "before the dogs." Scientific or no, the term procyon is a bit misleading, since coons evolved, not before, but more or less in parallel with, the canine, with the two species sharing the same early ancestors. The second part of the raccoon's scientific name, lotor, means "washer." That's more apropos, for, as the German wasberen also indicates, the creature has a distinctive habit of dunking its food before eating it.
Which brings us to the Great Coon Quandary.
For many years biologists assumed that raccoons wash their food in the true sense-tidy it up before tossing it down. But during the early twentieth century, that idea was pushed aside in favor of the theory that raccoons wet their food because their salivary glands don't produce enough saliva to meet their digestive needs. By the early 1960s, though, researchers had decided that raccoons do produce sufficient saliva, and another explanation was called for. The third theory postulated that, since the coon so enjoys handling its food before eating it, it wets both its paws and the item being pawed in order to heighten the sense of touch.
Nowadays, the Great Coon Quandary seems to have wandered full circle, for the latest edition of Hall and Kelson's Mammals of North America—a zoological reference many biologists consider the final word—re-asserts the idea of washing as cleansing: "Washing the food caught along a stream removes sand and grit, as well as perhaps certain skin secretions of the prey."
Still, there's no solid academic agreement on the subject, leaving the true reason the raccoon washes its food a mystery. But there's no doubt about what the coon washes and then gobbles down—just about anything it can get its paws on. In the natural state (that is, beyond the bounds of D. C. and other garbage-rich cities), a raccoon's diet is dictated primarily by the seasons.
The back country coon's most important food source in spring is offspring-that is, the young of other wild creatures. A competent swimmer and superb climber, P. lotor excels at stealing eggs and chicks from birds' nests, snatching muskrat kits from their island-like, mud-and-stick houses, bagging baby bunnies, and generally raising Cain among the wild and young.
In summer, the raccoon's diet could be described as a Cajun salad: wild greens supplemented with all the crayfish, frogs, and other riparian (streamside) meat items the talented little angler can catch.
Come fall, like a miniature bear, the raccoon goes on an all-out fattening spree, trying to store up enough calories during this annual time of plenty to see it through the coming months of cold, hunger, and reproduction. Autumn staples for raccoons are berries and mast (nuts). Before the blight that wiped out the once-abundant American chestnut, the prickly-hulled harvest of this magnificent tree was the raccoon's favored fall food. Nowadays acorns are the coon's primary fall fare, fleshed out with insects and the ever-popular crayfish.
Autumn is also when the coon works hardest to sustain its reputation as a masked bandit. If you've ever had a garden crop of milk-ripe sweet corn wiped out in just a few nights, you know how destructive a few for-aging raccoons can be—and that most attempts to protect coon-targeted corn generally come to naught.
But failure doesn't keep farmers and gardeners from trying to protect their crops. Over the years, a number of raccoon repellants have become part of North America's collective agricultural folk wisdom. One of these is newspaper—wadded, shredded, or simply spread flat and placed on the ground around the cornstalks. The idea here is that raccoons so dislike getting ink on their paws that they'll avoid the paper-carpeted portions of your garden. Apparently, this trick sometimes works—for a while. Trouble is, wind and water soon destroy the newspaper, or the coons eventually get over their ink phobia.
A second folk preventive is to sprinkle stove ashes on the ground around each cornstalk, and onto each ear. This reportedly helps to keep honest coons honest—at least until it rains. (However, John Hadidian reports that a favored denning place for urban raccoons is inside chimneys, a fact that seems to indicate a generous tolerance for ashes and soot.)
Fine-ground cayenne pepper sprinkled onto the silks of ripening corn is a third folk talisman that sometimes works, again, for a while—until the raiders become accustomed to spicier fare. A fourth holistic coon preventive is to ring your corn patch with soybeans in hopes that the beans will fill the raiders' bellies before they make it to your com.
To bring a scientific perspective to the problem, Dr. Hadidian passes along a couple of somewhat more active deterrents: "I've been told of some success using the old radio-in-the-cornfield trick. This requires an all-night talk show, but if you have a small enough area to treat, the raccoons may be either frightened or bored enough to avoid it. Of course, the old dog-in-the-cornfield caper is still the best." [EDITOR'S NOTE: As reported in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 99's Seasons of the Garden column, recent research suggests that baby powder sprinkled on ears is a useful alternative.]
If you have neither a portable radio nor an alert dog (coons could cart my oid black fatty away and he'd never wake), the only really effective deterrents seem to be electrical fencing, corn cages (sturdy chicken-wire pens with roofs), guns, and traps. If you opt for live-trapping marauding coons, be sure to transport your captives a long way away for release, since they'll return if possible, and a once-trapped coon isn't likely to let itself be taken again.
Raccoons are also adept hen house raiders, taking eggs, chicks, and layers. If your coop gets hit, how can you tell if a coon is the culprit? You can't, unless you catch one in the act. But here are some indicators: A weasel in a hen house will attempt to destroy every last bird (as will a feral dog), killing with a distinctive bite to the base of the skull and eating very little of its plunder. By contrast, a raccoon will generally kill only one bird per visit, carrying it off when possible and eating just about everything but the feathers - then return the very next night for another fowl feast, and so on until the larder is depleted. Coyotes and foxes, being thriftier by nature, usually space out their raids.
Since an adult raccoon has a rather bulky bod, you'd think that a coop tight enough to keep adult hens in would keep coons out. Not necessarily so. John Hadidian's testimony proves otherwise: "I've had a couple of experiences with raccoons that suggest the need to pay attention to detail. I released a large male from a live trap last winter, expecting him to run along the fenceline where I let him go. To my surprise, he ran headlong at the fence, squirted under it, and disappeared into the distance. On examination, I found that he'd squeezed through a four-inch gap between the fence and ground—if it's accurate to say 'squeezed' when he hit it at a dead run. If I were raising chickens, I'd mend even the smallest holes in my coop."
And even then you might have to contend with the occasional clever varmint that learns to reach through chicken wire, snatch a hen, rip it to bite-sized bits, and pull the morsels through the wire one at a time.
It's easy to tell when a raccoon has been dining on eggs. Instead of making a mess of it, as most other egg-rustlers do, the crafty creature cleanly bites the top off each egg and slurps out the contents, leaving neatly decapitated shells strewn about like empty bowls.
Whether fattened on your poultry and produce or not, a raccoon that's well into its average 10-year life span can grow to be a virtual walking tub of lard, with adults averaging 12 to 20 pounds and sometimes porking up to nearly 50. The largest raccoon on record was killed in Wisconsin in 1955, measured 55 inches tongue to tail, and weighed a whopping 62 pounds, 6 ounces. The smallest subspecies inhabits the Florida Keys and averages a mere 3.3 pounds fully grown.
With the onset of winter, north-country wash bears retire to comfy dens in standing' dead trees, hollow logs, or rocky crevices to coon-nap through the cold months. While raccoons don't actually hibernate, they do keep to their dens and doze for extended periods when temperatures are well below freezing. But on ,days when a bright sun warms the air to above freezing and the snow isn't so deep that walking (and running) is difficult, they're likely to venture out in search of food and excitement. Southern sunbelt coons remain active year-round, as do big-city raccoons everywhere.
Between naps, raccoons manage to find the time to breed during winter. Males will mate with as many receptive females as they can find, frequently trekking great distances in their pursuit of love. (Wildlife photographer Leonard Lee Rue III reports snow-tracking one particularly energetic coon Casanova eight miles in a single night.) The ladies of the species are more civilized in their affairs, keeping near home and generally accepting only one mate per season.
Gestation requires around 63 days, with litters averaging three or four 2.5-ounce kits. Within three weeks of birth the wee coons have their eyes open; after about 50 days they're able to scamper in and out of the den under their own power, and by 10 weeks are accompanying their mother on her nightly rounds.
By the following winter, most young coons will have left home to pursue their own adventurous lives in the North American back. country . . . or in some of our biggest cities, where they grow fat and sassy on human handouts (occasionally biting the very fingers that feed them), raid and scatter garbage, startle light sleepers with their infernal nocturnal racket, invade basements, chimneys, and sewers, and spread rabies.
So what's being done to halt the raccoon invasion of D.C. and other eastern cities? The question should probably be, What can be done? The answer so far is, not much. Dr. Hadidian and his colleagues are literally working night and day to keep tabs on the furry immigrants while experimenting with methods for mass-vaccinating raccoons against rabies, using smelly baits placed in strategic locations. But metropolitan coon management is a relatively new science which so far offers no immediate reprieve from the current trends of more raccoons and more rabies.
Eventually, of course, humanity—being even more adaptable and occasionally more clever than the raccoon—will get the upper hand. But before passing too harsh a sentence on the fate of urban raccoons, it would be well for us to remember that, for almost 500 years now, we've been gnawing away at the natural domain of the raccoon; appropriating, displacing, or destroying many of the animal's traditional foods; clear-cutting the old-growth forests that provide its favored housing; and polluting the waterways near which the creature lives and on which it depends for a major portion of its sustenance.
After all of that, it's understandable why the wash bear is moving to Washington in such numbers. He's undoubtedly decided that—what the heck?—if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.