Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
Did You Know?
- Raccoons belong to the order Carnivora along with bears, cats, dogs, badgers, and other carnivores.
- When raccoons are calling to each other, they often use a vocalization that sounds similar to the whistle of a screech owl.
Description and Identification
Raccoons have grayish-brown fur, and are easily identified by a black eye mask and bushy, black-ringed tail. They are medium-sized mammals, approximately 26 to 39 inches in length (including the tail), and weigh 6 to 27 pounds depending on the animal’s age and condition. An average adult male weighs 15 to 20 pounds. Raccoons in northern Illinois tend to be larger than those in southern Illinois.
For those unfamiliar with animal tracks, raccoon tracks may be easily confused with opossum tracks. Both animals have five toes on each foot. They also share a similar walking style that produces paired tracks. The front and opposite hind tracks will be side by side or close together. However, the tracks of the two animals are easy to tell apart if you know the characteristics of each animal. Look at the hind track to distinguish between the two animals. The hind track of an opossum will resemble a baby’s handprint. The inner toes on an opossum’s hind foot are thumb-like and lack claws. Raccoons have claws on all of their toes and walk flat-footed.
The raccoon is a generalist species and can be found nearly wherever food, water, and shelter are available. Historically raccoons lived in wooded river bottoms and were less abundant in the uplands. Today raccoons can be found living in urban and suburban areas and in areas with a mixture of farmland and woodland. Raccoons are less common in grasslands or in agricultural areas with few trees since these areas provide fewer sources of shelter. Raccoons normally den in hollow trees or abandoned woodchuck or fox burrows. However, they will readily use barns, chimneys, attics, or the space under decks and porches for shelter if they can gain access. They have several den sites in their home range.
Home ranges of urban and suburban raccoons are typically smaller than those of rural raccoons because of the concentration of available water, food and shelter in many urban areas. Researchers have documented raccoon home ranges of 53 to 92 acres in suburban areas of northern Illinois. The size of a home range varies based on habitat quality, season, population density, and the sex and age of the raccoon. Males typically have larger home ranges than females since they often travel during the breeding season to search for mates.
Distribution and Abundance
Raccoons are found in every county in Illinois and are abundant throughout the state. The number of raccoons in Illinois has increased dramatically since the 1930s. Researchers estimate that there are more raccoons in Illinois today than there were when the first European settlers arrived. It is common to have populations of 9 to 45 raccoons per square mile in Illinois. Fall population estimates of 98 to 101 raccoons per square mile have been recorded for parts of Cook, Kane, and McHenry counties.
Raccoons are promiscuous breeders and mate with several individuals. Breeding occurs from January through March with the peak occurring in February. Gestation is approximately 63 days. The female will raise one liter of three to four young each year. Young raccoons begin to venture outside the den for short periods of time when they are a month old, but do not leave the den until they are weaned (between two and three months of age). Though able to care for themselves, young raccoons typically stay near the female throughout the fall and winter, waiting until the following spring to disperse.
Raccoons are omnivores, meaning that they eat both plant and animal material. They are opportunistic feeders and their diet varies based upon their environment. Raccoons will eat insects, crayfish, fish, turtles and eggs, voles and mice, young birds and eggs, and birds that have been crippled or killed by hunters. They also eat acorns, nuts, fruits and berries, corn and other grains, and grasses and sedges. In urban areas, they will supplement their diets with garbage and pet food.
Raccoons are nocturnal and forage for food at night. During the day they remain close to their den. Raccoons do not hibernate, but will stay in their den for several days if the winter weather is severe. During the winter months, or in areas with large populations of raccoons and limited shelter, raccoons may den with several other individuals. However, raccoons are primarily solitary animals.
Raccoons are excellent climbers and swim well. They typically try to run away or climb a nearby tree if threatened. However, a raccoon that is cornered will growl and may try to defend itself.
The average raccoon has a lifespan of three to five years. Dogs, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and great horned owls can take young raccoons. Adult raccoons are more likely to be killed by automobiles or disease than by predators. The oldest raccoon in a study conducted in west-central Illinois was 11 years of age.
Damage Prevention and Control Measures
Raccoons are most likely to cause problems by denning under decks or porches or inside attics or chimneys, raiding garbage cans, or taking fruit or vegetables from gardens.
- Remove tree branches that overhang the roof to limit access to chimney or attics.
- Do not leave pet food outside over night.
- Store garbage in metal or tough plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. It may be necessary to secure the lid with wire or a clamp.
- Close dumpster lids each night. Check to make sure that animals are not in the dumpster before closing the lid.
- Attach a heavy duty, commercial grade chimney cap over the top of a chimney.
- Repair holes and close all openings to attics. Make sure all raccoons are out of the building before sealing openings. To be sure the animal is out, loosely stuff newspaper into the openings during the morning or afternoon when the raccoon may be asleep inside. If the newspaper was not moved overnight after a couple of days, it is safe to proceed with repairs and to close off the raccoon’s access points.
- Prevent raccoons from getting under porches or decks. For porches or decks built within two feet of the ground, dig a trench at least ten inches deep around the deck’s perimeter. Attach ½" × ½" mesh hardware cloth or 1" × 1" welded wire from the top of the outside joists to the bottom of the trench. Leave six to eight inches of wire at the bottom and bend it out at a 90° angle. Fill the trench with soil or rocks. Add lattice or other cover for aesthetics.
Repellents and Frightening Devices
- Frightening a raccoon with noise (a loud radio) or lights (mechanics trouble light or a strobe light) may discourage an individual from remaining on your property, but these techniques are usually only temporary solutions.
- Currently there are no registered repellents for raccoons.
If a raccoon is causing property damage, and all other control measures have failed, the animal may need to be removed. Removal should be used as a last resort.
If you do not want to remove the animal yourself, you can call a nuisance wildlife control operator (NWCO) to trap and remove the raccoon for you. NWCOs will charge a fee for this service.
If you want to remove the raccoon yourself, you will need to call your local Illinois Department of Natural Resources District Wildlife Biologist to request an animal removal permit. If the situation warrants the removal of the animal, the biologist will issue you an animal removal permit.
Raccoons should be live-trapped in a commercially available trap such as a Tomahawk trap. Traps should be baited with cat food, sardines, or other similar product. Place the trap near the area where you have seen the raccoon. Set the trap in the early evening and check it early the next morning. All traps should be checked at least once a day. Close the trap during the day to avoid capturing animals other than raccoons.
Once you have captured the raccoon, you have several choices. By law, raccoons in Illinois must either be: 1) released on the same property within 100 yards of where the animal was captured, 2) surrendered to a licensed veterinarian who is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, or 3) humanely euthanized. The biologist issuing the permit will determine the appropriate outcome for each case.
Be sure to repair any holes or openings to your home or deck before you release the raccoon, or it will just return to its “den”. Even if the raccoon will not to be released onto the same property, repairs should be made quickly so that a new raccoon does not move onto your property.
Public Health Concerns
Raccoons do not generally pose a public health risk. However, they can be carriers of rabies, a disease that is fatal to humans if not treated quickly. Therefore, care should be taken not to come into contact with raccoons. Raccoons may also be carriers of canine distemper and parvovirus, which can infect domestic cats and dogs. However, neither disease has had any human health implications reported in Illinois.
Raccoons may also be infected by several kinds of parasites, including tapeworm and roundworm. The raccoon roundworm is an Ascarid nematode and is infectious to humans. People can become infected when they accidentally ingest roundworm eggs that are shed in raccoon feces. Washing hands in hot, soapy water can prevent infection. Disinfect contaminated areas with a 10 percent bleach, 90 percent water solution.
Raccoons are mesopredators and help control insect and rodent populations. They also are important seed dispersers. When raccoon populations get too large, they can negatively impact bird populations by feeding on eggs and nestlings.
In Illinois, raccoons are protected as a Furbearer. Raccoons in urban areas that cause property damage or present a threat to public health or safety may be removed if an Illinois Department of Natural Resources District Wildlife Biologist issues an animal removal permit.
In rural areas, a hunting or trapping license is needed to harvest a raccoon. In rural areas, there is no limit to the number of raccoons that an individual with a hunting or trapping license may take. The statewide raccoon hunting season is from early November through mid-February, except during the firearm deer season. Raccoons may be trapped from November through January. IDNR biologists monitor the number of raccoons in Illinois to ensure that hunting and trapping do not negatively impact the population. For full hunting and trapping regulations, visit the IDNR Licenses & Hunting website.