The Northern Raccoon: An ‘Opportunistic Omnivore’

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Raccoons are famous for their ability to solve complex problems, as well as open latches and locks.
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"The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators" by Janet Vorwald Dohner helps you identify threatening predators and explains how you can protect your pets and livestock from harm.

The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators (Storey Publishing, 2017), by Janet Vorwald Dohner provides information on over 50 predators and teaches readers how to protect their pets and livestock from harm. The book is a useful guide to identifying threatening species through their habits and habitats. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Raccoons.”

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The intelligent, black-masked raccoon has long been famed for its ability to open latches and locks, solve complex situations, and remember its solutions over time. Native American folktales often describe it as a trickster, capable of outsmarting other animals. The Powhatan word, recorded as aroughcun, was noted in the earliest days of the Virginia colonies. The Aztecs called it mapachitli, or “one who takes everything in its hands,” which became mapache in Spanish.

Columbus was the first European observer of the raccoon, originally thought to be a member of the bear family. Early explorers did not find raccoons in the central and north-central areas of the United States, suggesting that the species was limited to the wooded river lands of the southeastern states and south into Central America.

Colonists soon adopted the traditional use of the ringed tail as a hat decoration, and they widely hunted raccoons for fur and meat, often with coon-hounds bred to the task. By the 1930s, the population was severely reduced; however, the species has rebounded into the millions and greatly expanded its range.

Related to the Cozumel and crab-eating raccoon species, the Northern raccoon is commonly found from southern Canada throughout the United States, in both urban and rural areas except high mountainous elevations or very arid environments. The success of the species is linked to the loss of natural predators and their adaption to both urban and agricultural habitats. Due to escapes and deliberate releases, raccoons now inhabit some European and Asian countries, including Germany, France, Spain, the former Soviet Union, and Japan.


Raccoons have poor long-distance vision but see well in the dark, and they have good senses of smell and hearing. Their hind legs are longer than their front legs, giving them a hunched stance and limiting their speed and jumping ability, although they are excellent climbers and swimmers and can descend trees headfirst. Their front paws are very dexterous with a highly developed sense of touch.

Today raccoons include more than 20 subspecies that vary in size and coloration, ranging from 24 to 44 inches long, including the long, bushy tail, and weighing from 4 to 40 pounds, although 15 to 30 pounds is more common. Larger and heavier raccoons have been recorded. The largest animals are in the Northwest, and the smallest in the Southeast. Males are heavier than females, and raccoons can gain twice their normal weight in preparation for cold winters.

The characteristic black mask and ringed tail can appear on a base coat that is grizzled gray, reddish brown, or yellowish. The nose is relatively short, but the skull is broad, with rounded ears.

Habitat and Behavior

Raccoons traditionally lived in hardwood forests, often foraging at the water’s edge, but they are highly adaptable to varying climates and terrains and will use livestock troughs and ornamental ponds as a water source. Preferring tree hollows above ground for their dens and resting spots, raccoons will also occupy the burrows of other animals, caves, brushy or rocky areas, and human structures from buildings to culverts and sewers. Individual raccoons will also move among several dens or resting sites.

Related females often share common feeding or resting areas within their home range, although mothers with kits will be protectively solitary. Males also band together during breeding season to defend against strange males. Range size varies according to availability of food and water. Populations are denser in urban and suburban locations.

Its diet varying according to location, the raccoon is an opportunistic omnivore, eating insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, small mammals, eggs, scavenged carcasses and garbage, fruits, nuts, seeds, roots, and crops such as corn. Raccoons use their front paws to catch or handle their food. Raccoons are usually nocturnal, although mothers with young kits may forage during the day and raccoons near coastal areas may take advantage of low tides.

Life Cycle

Breeding season may occur from January to June, depending on the area. A female will often mate with more than one male, but she raises her 3 to 7 kits alone. The kits often stay with their mother for their first winter, although young females are capable of breeding during their first spring. During very cold or snowy times, solitary raccoons or small groups will sleep or be inactive in a den, but they do not hibernate. While raccoons can live up to 20 years, most survive only 1 or 2 years, falling prey to traffic accidents, hunting and trapping, larger predatory mammals and birds, snakes, starvation, and illness. Distemper is especially prevalent in the raccoon population and the leading cause of natural death.

Human Interaction

Raccoons can move into homes or other buildings, damaging siding and roofing; ruining fruit and other crops; and killing poultry, waterfowl, game birds, and rabbits. They are among the primary “problem animals” removed by wildlife control professionals.

Raccoons can transmit rabies, plague, canine distemper, or leptospirosis to human or domestic animals. Baylisascaris procyonis, a specific roundworm, is a potentially fatal parasite transmitted to humans via feces. Feces should be burned or buried, and surfaces treated with boiling water or high temperatures. Handle with caution and do not inhale particles.

Raccoons are the primary carriers of rabies in the eastern United States, and every state in the country has identified rabid raccoons. Rabies has also returned in the raccoon population in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario. Rabid raccoons will usually, but not always, appear ill, with unusual movements, vocalizations, or aggressive behavior. Raccoons with distemper also display unusual movements and disorientation.

Use caution when encountering raccoons during the day, since this may be a sign of disease. The best advice is to leave raccoons alone and handle dead animals only with protection.


Northern raccoons are subject to regulated hunting or trapping seasons in many areas. Check with state wildlife agencies for other regulations. Relocation of trapped raccoons is prohibited in many areas due to the threat of disease.

Raccoon Encounters

Do not attempt to make a pet out of a baby raccoon because it can become very difficult to control as an adult and will be too friendly toward humans to be released. Disease is also common among pet raccoons.

If a raccoon surprises or confronts you, make yourself larger by waving your arms and shouting or throwing stones or water near the animal to chase it off. Teach children to move away and shout, “Go away, raccoon!” to alert adults that they need help. If the raccoon behaves aggressively, do not attack or trap it; instead, call local wildlife authorities. Raccoons rarely attack cats or dogs but may fight if cornered.

Rabies is always a serious concern in any incident with a raccoon.

Dealing with Raccoons

Homes and Yards:

• Do not feed raccoons, which encourages their dependency and habituates them to humans, leading to more aggressive behavior.

• Keep outdoor cooking areas clean. If the area is contaminated by raccoon feces, carefully dispose of the feces and disinfect the area and utensils.

• Secure garbage and wild bird, pet, and animal feed.

• Do not feed pets outside or leave pet food outside at night. In more arid areas, do not leave water out at night.

• Secure pet doors at night or use electronic openers. Raccoons have entered homes through these doors.

• Use care when allowing pets out at night. Do not leave smaller dogs outdoors at night except in a protective kennel with a top.

• Wrap ripening sweet corn to the stalk with a double loop of filament tape, which also prevents husks from being pulled back.

• Use safe, commercially designed caps on chimneys and block access to attics, crawl spaces, and under-porch areas. A raccoon can enter through a 4-inch-diameter hole.

• Use metal or plastic spikes, vent piping, or sheet metal to prevent raccoons from climbing up poles, trees, or the sides of buildings.

• Construct fishponds with steep sides. Two foot-tall mesh fencing or electric wire spaced at 6 and 12 inches will also discourage raccoons. Cover smaller ponds with mesh or netting, especially at night.

Livestock Husbandry:

• Cover openings that might provide shelter, and clear areas of rubbish, brush, and overhanging tree branches near animal enclosures and buildings.

• Hardware cloth is the best exclusion device for shelters and pens. Tops need to be covered as well.

• Since raccoons can open many simple latches — such as hook and eye, spring clips, snap hooks, and sliding or lifting latches — use Kiwi latches or padlocks on coop or pen doors and gates.

• Lights, sound, scarecrows, and streamers may provide temporary protection, but raccoons rapidly habituate to scare devices or floodlights.

• Livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) provide reliable protection against raccoons.


• Improve fences with scare wires at bottom (at 6 and 12 inches) and top.

• Use temporary electric fencing around gardens and animal areas.

Do Raccoons Wash Their food?

The word lotor in the species name describes the raccoon as a “washer,” possibly because it closely examines potential food with its paws, sometimes rubbing at it. Contrary to popular belief, although raccoons may also dip the food in water if available, this action is not for cleaning but an instinctive manipulative behavior possibly related to searching for food on the banks of water.

The Raccoon’s Cousins

The ring-tailed cat, found throughout the southwestern United States, is smaller, far more reclusive, and more timid than its cousin the raccoon. The coati, found in a much smaller range in the same area of the country, is the only member of this family that is active in the daytime.

Evicting a Trapped Raccoon

Raccoons are most active beginning at dusk, when eviction methods are most successful. You can construct a one-way door out of a space where a raccoon is trapped; however, very young kits may not be mobile enough to use one. You do not want the raccoon to die entrapped.

If a raccoon falls in a Dumpster or a similar pit, insert a branch or rough board to help it climb out.

If a raccoon enters your house or another building, close interior doors to isolate it in one room. Open the windows and exterior doors in the room, including any pet doors. Do not corner the raccoon, which may defend itself.

Raccoons in chimneys are usually mothers with kits, which are very noisy. Keep the damper closed, bang the damper repeatedly, and play loud music. Wet a rag with raccoon eviction fluid or ammonia and wedge it above the damper. Usually the female will move the kits out within a few days of this harassment. Smoking raccoons and young kits is not recommended, as the young kits are likely to suffocate. Do not cap the chimney until the kits are removed.

It is illegal to release trapped raccoons in many areas, due to the threat of disease. Call local authorities or professionals for removal problems.

Excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators, © by © Janet Vorwald Dohner, photography by © Mike Lentz, illustrations by © Elayne Sears, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

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