It's hard to get mad at animals that look so cute. It is a problem I face these days as I witness one of nature's mothers try to teach her young how to survive on their own.
A female raccoon and her four young kits have been visiting my backyard pretty regularly the last couple of weeks, and I don't mean just at night. This afternoon, she ambled into our yard with four little tag-a-longs and headed straight for the bird feeding area under the magnolia. I just happened to walk by the kitchen window and saw four little brown, hunched-over bodies with their mother, digging furiously in the dirt for spilled birdseed. I know I should chase them away, but the sight of this little group foraging so near is hard to resist. I'm even starting to look forward to their visits so I can get yet one more look at this remarkable little family.
In last month's column, I wrote about the nature of northern raccoons – where they live, what they eat, characteristics of the species. Common throughout Illinois, these animals can be found wherever food, water, and shelter are available, generally in areas with a mix of farmland and woods that offer plenty of denning sites. They are increasingly becoming common in urban areas. In fact, wildlife biologists have estimated that there are more raccoons in Illinois today than there were when the first European settlers arrived. It is no wonder, then, that the paths of wild raccoons and everyday people are bound to cross sooner or later.
So what are some of these "raccoon vs human" situations, and what can we do about them?
Raccoons become a nuisance when they nest under our decks or porches or get inside attics or chimneys to establish a den. They cause problems when they raid backyard vegetable gardens, a favorite pastime. They are particularly fond of corn, but are capable in family groups of ruining an entire tomato or watermelon crop in one night. They are leading marauders of bird feeders, using their body weight to pull them down, and their teeth and feet to break them open. They can wreak havoc on garbage cans and pet food bowls in search of that precious commodity – food.
So what is the best way to deal with them? It's simple, really – deny them food and denning sites. How? By modifying their habitat. In the case of birdfeeders, we can remove or restrict
access to them, much like foiling squirrels. We can use large, sturdy baffles on post feeders and domes over the tops of hanging feeders, and locate them far away from trees and shrubs so branches can't be used to gain easy access (raccoons are great climbers). In addition, we can remove or empty the feeders at night when raccoons are most active in their search for food.
Garbage should be placed in tough metal or plastic containers, and lids must be tight-fitting or securely fastened (perhaps with a wire or a clamp) so the top cannot be pried off by nimble paws. Pet food dishes must be emptied or removed entirely, or domestic pets can simply be fed indoors to remove temptation.
Exclusion techniques involve preventing the animals from gaining access to garden produce or denning areas. The best defense against garden damage is a fence equipped with a "hot wire" from an electric fence charger at the top. This can greatly increase the effectiveness of a fence for exclusion of raccoons – it truly says "Stay out and I'm not kidding!" Sometimes a simple structure of two electric wires trained around the garden area can do the job, but one wire six inches above the ground may be enough to foil them. Electric fence chargers are available for sale at local farm supply dealers.
A simpler solution that takes advantage of their hairless and sensitive paws may help deter them.
They don't like to walk across anything that is slick, sharp, sticky, or just plain weird-feeling. Laying a three-foot wide strip around the garden area of nylon netting, smooth pebbles, thorny rose or bramble canes, sweet gum balls, plastic sheeting, broken pot pieces and shards, wire mesh, or anything else you can think of will often be enough to make them think twice before helping themselves.
Tree branches that overhang the roof should be removed to prevent access to chimneys or attics. Holes in homes and outbuildings must be repaired, but we must be sure that the animal is out before sealing the openings. Sometimes, simply placing crumpled newspaper into the opening during the day when the raccoon sleeps will help to determine if the animal is out of the den. If the paper has not been disturbed overnight or after a day or two, then repairs can be made to close the access hole and prevent re-entrance. In addition, a heavy-duty, commercial grade chimney cap over the top of a chimney can help prevent access to the inside.
What if they're stubborn and won't leave? If all other measures have failed, the animal may need to be removed as a last resort. Enticing them into a live trap placed in or near the problem area may be required, but an animal removal permit must first be issued by a Department of Natural Resources district wildlife biologist. Traps should be baited with catfood, sardines, or even marshmallows (their curiosity will get the best of them). Set the trap in the early evening and check it early the next morning. Traps should be closed during the day to prevent capturing animals other than raccoons, then reset again in the evening.
Once captured, caution is necessary. Illinois law requires that they be: 1) released on the same property within 100 yards of capture, 2) turned over to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, or 3) humanely euthanized. The appropriate outcome will be determined by the biologist issuing the permit. Raccoons will typically try to run away or climb up a nearby tree to escape, but when cornered they may growl and try to defend themselves. They can get nasty. Unless a person has some experience handling wild species, it's probably wise to call in a nuisance wildlife control operator (for a fee) to handle the job.
Raccoons are intelligent, bold, and persistent when it comes to making a nest or finding food. So whatever methods you use to rid your property of them, remember to change the tactics often. It won't take long for them to figure things out, and you'll be back at square one. As for me, I'm going to enjoy observing my wild young family until they give me reason to regret seeing them around. Knowing what I know about raccoons, that day may come sooner than I think.