The raccoon is an easily recognizable furbearer with a ringed tail and patches of dark fur over the eye areas resembling a mask. Known to many simply as a "coon," the raccoon is managed by some states as a game animal and as a furbearer. This important and well-distributed species is adaptable to a variety of habitat types, and the species thrives in the wilderness and urban areas.
Raccoon weights vary from region to region. Generally, raccoons attain larger weights in northern states and lighter weights in southern states. Most adult male raccoons in northern states weigh 15-18 pounds during fall harvest seasons, with females averaging 2-3 pounds less. In some southern harvest areas, mature males weigh 9-10 pounds with females from the same areas weighing 8-9 pounds. Occasional specimens in northern states may weigh 30 pounds. Several individual raccoons have been taken from the wild weighing more than 50 pounds, but whether these animals have been fed as captives is unknown.
Raccoons have 40 teeth, including four elongated, sharp canine teeth. The hind legs are longer than the front legs, giving raccoons a hunched appearance as they walk or run. Toes number five on each foot, and the front feet are dexterous, allowing the raccoon to grasp and clutch items.
The fur of raccoons has guard hair of 2-2 1/4 inches long on the back areas, and underfur is 1 1/2 or 1 3/4 inches long. Depending on market demands, raccoon fur is used as long-haired fur and as a sheared, dyed short-haired fur.
Fur colors vary in areas. Most raccoons are a dirty blond with darker colors of guard hairs mottling the overall appearance. Reddish colors occur regularly in areas, and some raccoons are darker colors.
Breeding seasons for raccoons are usually in January in southern states and February in the middle and northern states. Young males are evicted from the dens at this time, and mature male raccoons search out all available females. Female raccoons are capable of breeding at 10 months of age, but males do not breed until their second year.
Gestation is usually 63 days, and two to four young are common in southern states. Litters of four to six are more common in northern states. The young raccoons are cared for solely by the mothers, and mother raccoons are aggressive in the protection of their young.
Raccoons eat a wide variety of foods and store up layers of fat during the fall to prepare for winter. Contrary to common beliefs, raccoons do not hibernate during extreme weather, but they do stay in dens for weeks at a time using up stored body fats. In southern states, raccoons may stay active all winter.
This species does exhibit curiosity, which is an indication of intelligence. Raccoons are very strong animals and are good swimmers and tree climbers. When climbing a tree, a raccoon will usually climb in a hand-over-hand fashion, but they are capable of bounding up a tree. Raccoons descend trees either by backing down or by turning around and coming down headfirst. They do not hesitate to jump from heights of 30 feet when they feel threatened.
The front paws of raccoons are dextrous, and the species commonly hunts in shallow water by turning over stones in search of crayfish and other foods. Washing foods before eating is not normally done by wild raccoons; this activity by some pinned raccoons may reflect boredom or curiosity. Raccoons are opportunists, commonly eating whatever is available. Important foods include crayfish, mussels, clams, frogs, salamanders, earthworms, fruits, nuts, grains, carrion, eggs, and any available warm-blooded small mammals or birds. Preferred foods may include fish and sweet corn.
Weight: up to 30 pounds
Mating season: January-February
Gestation: 63 days
Litter size: 2-6 young
Do not hibernate
Life span: 10 years
Territory sizes vary with individual raccoons, and most home ranges seem to cover 2-4 square miles. The shapes of the territories are irregular and usually include the waterways within the area. Raccoons do a significant amount of their hunting in or around water, and preferred habitats include streams, ponds, or marshes in the area.
A raccoon may cover as much as 3-5 miles on mild fall nights and eat as much as 5 pounds of food while storing up body fat for winter. Usually, the raccoon will den up for the day at a convenient den. Attempts to transplant raccoons are rarely successful because they do not stay where they are relocated. In one South Carolina attempt, 789 raccoons were released, but only 14 were ever recovered. Two were recovered within 20 miles of the release site, and a dozen were found at distances of 20-180 miles. The rest could not be located.
Raccoons are found in all the lower 48 states and the southern tier of Canadian provinces. They are harvested by trapping in 44 states.
Raccoons do not compete severely with other species in the demands upon the habitat. Many species can and do share the same areas with raccoons with minimal friction.
Raccoons can and do cause damage at times, especially when they are abundant. Waterfowl nests are raided regularly for eggs, and raccoons sometimes raid farmyards for chickens or other fowl. Corn in the milk stage is vulnerable to raccoons; they find sweet corn particularly attractive. The damage to sweet corn by raccoons can be extensive, as this species commonly wastes more sweet corn than it eats.
Adult raccoons are sometimes preyed upon by coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions where ranges overlap. Juvenile raccoons are also killed at times by large owls, eagles, and fishers.
Several diseases afflict raccoons, including canine and feline distemper. Raccoons occasionally carry leptospirosis, which can be transmitted to humans via biting. Rabies is also a problem in raccoons; this species is the leading carrier of this dreaded disease in some eastern and southeastern states. Parasites infecting coons include roundworms, flatworms, tapeworms, mange-causing mites, lice, and fleas.
Ten years of age is considered old for a wild raccoon.