Coles County Wild Things

Coles County Wild Things

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Racoons in Illinois

It was the sudden and noisy clamor of metal on wood that startled me as I sat reading on the couch a couple of evenings ago. The subsequent low growl of our old cat on the porch got my attention as I reached for the doorknob and swung open the front door. There staring up at me in a hunched position not three feet away was a large, furry animal with bushy ringed tail and a bandit-like mask on its face. Yes, that pesky old coon was back again looking for the cat food dish and it wasn't even dark yet!

I swear they get bolder every year. We've been pretty careful about feeding our domestic animals early and bringing in the excess food before nighttime descends. There is plenty of wildlife in our rural neighborhood and raccoons are common and plentiful, our familiar and persistent visitors of the night. But while they are top-notch hunters, foragers, and fishers in the wild, they seem to have developed a taste for the tidbits that are easier pickins' – from garbage cans, pet food dishes, fish ponds, and birdfeeders, to name a few. While they do have their favorite menu items, the fact is they'll eat just about anything they can get their little paws on. And leftover pet food is sure to bring them back like a standing invitation to dinner!

Procyon lotor – Northern raccoon. Found throughout Illinois, the common raccoon, or "coon" as they're often called, are stocky, grayish-brown mammals from two to three feet long and weigh ten to thirty-five pounds, depending on the age, size, and condition of the individual. Males are generally larger and heavier than the females. They are nocturnal (active at night) and are easily recognizable due to the bushy, heavily furred, black-ringed tail and prominent black "mask" over the eyes. Raccoons are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal foods. They are classified under the order of carnivores (meat eaters), however, because of their tooth structure. Common food items include all types of fruits, berries, nuts, acorns, grains, crayfish, frogs, snails, fish, insects, turtles and their eggs, mice, rabbits, muskrats, and the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and waterfowl.

The word "raccoon" comes from the name given the animal by the Algonquian Indians – "Arankun – he scratches with his hands." Indeed, raccoons have very well-developed forepaws when compared to those of other mammals, and the front feet are often described as being "nimble as a monkey's." Contrary to popular belief, raccoons do not always "wash" their food before eating it, but they do frequently play with their food in water. Their forepaws are very flexible and can firmly grasp very small and delicate objects. The palms of these front paws are extremely sensitive especially when wet, and are able to feel slight vibrations in the water made by prey such as fish, tadpoles, crabs, or crayfish. They will often inspect their food closely before eating, turning it over, rubbing it with their forepaws, or sniffing the food right against their noses. They may feel around in the muddy water for snails and crayfish, or use the water to soften the food before feeding. This close association and affinity for water explains their preference for marshy habitats and hardwood forest areas near rivers, lakes, and streams in east central Illinois.

Raccoons will den in ground burrows, large tree cavities (ideally), brush piles, muskrat houses, dense clumps of cattail, or barns and abandoned buildings. The female may use the same denning site year after year. In residential areas they sometimes make their dens in the attics or chimneys of occupied homes when access is available, and it is at these times that they may cause damage or become nuisances in a variety of ways.

These intelligent and curious creatures breed mainly in February or March in Illinois, with most litters being born in April or May. Late-breeding females, however, may not give birth until June or July. The gestation period is around 63 days, and only one litter of three to five kits is raised each year. As sole provider for the young, the mother leaves the nest only briefly to forage about for food, never venturing far before returning to nurse her babies. When they are about six weeks of age, the mother often moves them, carrying them one by one in her mouth much as a mother cat does. Her goal is to find another nest that has enough space for them to play, as they learn to walk and run and climb together in the process. The young are weaned sometime between two and four months of age, and the youngsters join their mother on short nightly forays, exploring and feeding at night and following her to temporary dens for shelter during the day. They learn by their mother's example how to find food, what dangers to avoid, and generally how to take care of themselves. Family groups of mother and young will often remain together for the first year and will den as a family unit during the winter months. The family will usually separate the following spring as the young become yearlings and less dependent on the mother. By this time, they have learned the lessons of survival well, and are considered to be full adults when they reach two years of age. Longevity is about three to six years in the wild, ten to fourteen years in captivity.

Since raccoons must live in areas with cold winters, they must face low temperatures and a lack of food during these months. To survive this difficult season, they enter into a state of deep sleep called torpor. During the fall months they eat as much food as they can find and store fat so they don't have to forage about as much. Instead, they can sleep in their winter dens and survive from the stored energy in their body fat. This is not true hibernation, as the raccoon's body temperature only drops a few degrees, and only on the coldest days. It does not lower its heart rate, breathing rate, or metabolism. When the outside temperature rises again, it is able to awaken quickly and leave its den to forage for food or find a mate as springtime nears. In contrast, true hibernators do not wake up at all during the winter until warmer temperatures are here to stay.

What happens when these ring-tailed bandits are more than just curious visitors to our backyards and become unwelcome guests? Is there a way to coexist with them without resorting to a situation of all-out war between human and raccoon? Next month we will explore some ways to deal with problems presented by masked marauders that are persistent, agile, and smart!

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