Unlike alligators and egrets, raccoons (Procyon lotor) aren’t exactly iconic features of the Lowcountry.
Still, they’re common and lively residents of our coastal marshes and maritime forests.
Raccoons are common throughout much of North America – even in residential areas, where they can become a nuisance by raiding trash cans, invading houses, and fouling backyard swimming pools.
Raccoons are easily recognized, of course, by their furry black masks. They’re typically about the size of a small dog, though size varies with age, sex, season, and habitat.
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The biggest wild raccoon on record was over four and a half feet long and weighed over 62 pounds.
Raccoons can swim, climb trees, and run up to 15 mph. Since their hind legs are longer than their front legs, they often have a hunchbacked appearance when they’re on the move.
Raccoons are resourceful. They can access the roofs of houses via overhanging tree branches or by climbing up downspouts. Even urban settings don’t deter them. In Hamilton, Ontario, for example, a raccoon scaled the brick walls of an apartment building, climbed onto a startled resident’s tenth-floor balcony, then scuttled back down once he was discovered.
Raccoons often use tree hollows for dens, but they also nest in brush piles, attics, sheds, culverts, crawl spaces under houses, and other protected places. They spend daytime hours dozing in their shelters, then emerge at night to forage for food.
Raccoons have a wide-ranging diet, from insects and earthworms to fish, frogs, mollusks, crayfish, eggs, acorns, berries, garbage, even carrion.
Although their eyesight is poor, raccoons have good hearing and keen senses of smell and touch.
They use the five sensitive “fingers” on their paws to examine and manipulate objects. They’re clever enough and nimble enough to unscrew jars, open door latches, and pull the corks off bottles.
And raccoons are well-known for immersing objects in water, seeming to wash their food before eating it. However, biologists believe that this “dousing” behavior actually functions to moisten the front paws, increasing their tactile sensitivity.
Raccoons have coats with a dense underfur that insulates them during cold weather. Still, they tend to be less active during winter, especially in the northern parts of their range. Although they don’t hibernate, they stay in their dens when the weather turns frigid.
Mating occurs from late winter to early spring, and females give birth to two to five offspring (“kits”), which they care for on their own.
Captive raccoons can live to be twenty years old. But life expectancy in the wild is only two or three years. Most raccoons die not from predation but from disease, infection, and encounters with vehicles.
Raccoons may look cute, but it’s wise to keep your distance. Resist the temptation to feed them, and beware of fearless or sluggish raccoons that are out during the daytime. Raccoons can carry rabies, which can be transmitted via bites to humans, as well as to pets.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.