The Masked Bandit

Bold, cunning, inquisitive, courageous and tenacious – all accurately describe the common raccoon. It’s the animal’s ability to learn, however, that fascinates me. Studies of captive raccoons reveal that their speed of learning equals that of a domestic cat. Another study not only confirmed their intelligence but also concluded that raccoons have excellent memories and are able to remember solutions to simple tasks for up to three years. The studies reminded me of a photo I had taken years ago of a raccoon cleverly preventing a live trap door from closing while the coon was inside, so I headed to my office to find the picture. By the time I got there, 30 seconds later, I couldn’t remember what I was looking for. (Seasoned citizens will understand.) Apparently these lesser mammals can remember simple tasks two years and 364 days longer than I can.

I still haven’t found that photo, but the story behind it remains clear in my mind. (What a memory!) Raccoons were raiding the sweet corn in my garden, and I was determined to stop them. I baited a live trap with sardines and, sure enough, the next morning I had a large coon in the trap. Conservation law prohibits transferring trapped raccoons from your property, so I released it to my back 40 and reset the trap. The following morning, a raccoon looking very similar to the first was in the trap. Suspecting it was the same animal, I sprayed a tiny portion of its rump with orange paint before releasing it. Several days later I looked out the window and there was my orange-rumped coon halfway in the trap, grabbing the bait and preventing the trap door from closing with an extended hind leg. Much of what I had read about their cleverness and intelligence was confirmed that day.

Raccoons are probably the most easily recognized medium-sized mammal in our region. They are often called masked bandits or ring tails because of the black mask across their eyes and their distinctive long, bushy tail with four to six black, brown and gray rings. Large raccoons can weigh 25 pounds, but a record-holding coon tipped the scales at 62 pounds.

Raccoons have five elongated toes on each their hind and front feet. Their tracks are longer than wide and resemble miniature human footprints with very long toes. With their thin, strong and dexterous toes and fingers, they can pry lids off garbage cans, untie knots, unscrew tops of jars, open cabinets and turn doorknobs. A friend in the Adirondacks told me about a relatively tame coon that opened his cabin door, ambled inside, opened the refrigerator and helped himself to a feast of leftovers.

Masked bandits eat just about anything. Sweet corn attracts them like a magnet, and they can do considerable damage to a row of corn, taking a few bites from one ear and then eagerly moving on to the next, and the next, and the next. They also like grapes and raspberries, and a family of coons can easily consume multiple quarts in a single night. When they’re not raiding cornfields, berry patches, vineyards, bird feeders or human leftovers, they revert to their natural diet, which consists of bird and turtle eggs, mice, frogs, fish, snails, and their clear favorite – crayfish. When they feed along the water’s edge, it looks like they’re using their nimble and sensitive fingers to wash their food and their faces, but they are simply dunking and playing with their food.

Although raccoons are not true hibernators, they den up during cold snaps and go into a drowsy sleep until nighttime temperatures warm up. Since they consume no food during their winter naps, their survival depends on fat reserves built up during the fall. To keep warm during frigid conditions, they snuggle together in communal dens. In Canada, 23 were found huddled together in one den during an extremely cold spell.

After all that snuggling, they make whoopee from February through March. Litters of three to five pups are born in April. They don’t open their eyes for nearly three weeks, and they begin ambling about the den at five weeks. Soon after weaning, the pups start climbing down from their tree dens to forage for themselves. Scratches on the bark of trees can be a telltale sign that a family of raccoons is coming and going.

It’s not at all uncommon to encounter raccoons in our area; they’re readily attracted to backyard birdfeeders and garbage bins. Many people find raccoons cute and fascinating, but keep in mind they are typically nocturnal and can be fierce. If one is regularly seen by day and exhibits bold behavior, it may be rabid. Avoid feeding cats and dogs outdoors because once attracted to pet food, raccoons will not back off. Cats and most breeds of dogs are no match for cunning and tenacious adult raccoons.

If you use good sense and exercise good judgment, the masked bandits can be one of the most fascinating and entertaining wildlife species to watch. And if your memory equals that of a raccoon’s, you may be able to recall their antics for years to come.


by Bill Banaszewski