The raccoon is a medium-sized mammal that is native to North America and a common resident of the Finger Lakes Region. Easily recognized by its black facial mask and black-ringed tail, its cuteness belies its mischievous behavior. Using its advanced intelligence and dexterous front paws, there is nothing that the raccoon won’t try to get into—whether it’s for food or just for fun.
The name raccoon was derived from the Native American word arakun, which offers a variety of spellings in different references, and was adopted into the English language during Colonial times. In the Algonquian language, it means “the one who digs and scrubs with its hands”, which no doubt refers to the raccoon’s dexterity and penchant for sometimes washing its food.
It is usually nocturnal and maintains an omnivorous diet of fruit, nuts, berries, crops, insects, small animals, pet food, and garbage. It generally dwells in deciduous and mixed forests, where it often dens in hollow trees. But its adaptability has brought it into cities and suburbs as well, where it can become a serious nuisance.
Litters of up to a half-dozen babies, known as cubs or kits, are born in late April or early May. After six weeks, they emerge from the den and follow their mother until early fall when they disperse and search for territories of their own. Males take no part in child-rearing.
Raccoon territories vary in size depending on the animal’s sex. A female can be very much at home and raise a family on 10 acres while a male may wander over hundreds of acres. While rural densities may range from 20 to 40 raccoons per square mile, densities in urban areas can be as high as 100 raccoons per square mile. Adult raccoons weigh from 15 to 20 pounds on average and measure about 30 inches in length including their tail.
Of serious concern are raccoon mortality and disease factors. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, raccoons can be infected by canine distemper and rabies. Raccoons with distemper act tame or confused, and eventually lose coordination, become unconscious and die. Distemper cannot be transmitted to humans or immunized pets. Rabid raccoons may behave aggressively, salivate heavily, or have paralyzed hind legs. Rabies can be transmitted to humans or other animals by the bite of an infected raccoon. DEC warns people to avoid any raccoon that exhibits any of these behaviors or symptoms and report any suspected case of rabies.
I enjoyed photographing the curious young raccoon above as it peered at me through a window in my house. But I’ve also had them come into my garage a couple of times when I absent-mindedly left the overhead door open overnight and entirely rearrange everything on my workbench. I didn’t enjoy that as much. But like black bears, raccoons den for most of the winter so I shouldn’t see any more mischief for a while.