Raccoons are most easily recognized by the black mask across their eyes. The remainder of their face is pale gray with dark eyes and white whiskers. Fur is grayish-brown on the back; the underside is light gray. Another distinguishing characteristic is the raccoon’s bushy tail, which has 6 – 10 brownish-black rings.
Additional Physical Attributes
- Body length is 2 to 3.3 feet, including the tail, which is 8 – 16 inches long.
- Raccoons have a broad head, pointed muzzle and short, erect ears.
- The long coarse fur of North American raccoons has been valued since the 1600's for coonskin caps, coats and robes.
- Raccoons have short legs; each foot has five toes with naked soles.
- The animal walks on the soles of its feet with heels touching the ground, like humans and bears.
- Forepaws look like human hands and give the animal remarkable dexterity.
- Raccoons weigh 20 – 25 pounds; males are larger than females.
- Weight and color vary depending on habitat and region.
- Raccoons are found throughout the United States, southern Canada and in Central and South America.
Behavior and Habitat
Raccoons are strong swimmers and often live near water, but they do not swim unless necessary. Their fur is not waterproof and gets heavy when wet. These animals are highly adaptable and continue to thrive despite the encroachment of civilization on their range. The common species found throughout the U.S. usually lives in trees near ponds and streams that are close to civilization. They are also found in farmlands, suburban and urban areas. Raccoons may make a den in a woodchuck burrow, empty building, garage, rain sewer, cave or even a house. Farmers view raccoons as a nuisance because they damage many crops including grapes, corn, melons and peanuts.
People commonly associate raccoons with washing their food. They use their front ‘hands’ to catch prey and seem to wash both the food and their hands prior to eating. Scientists do not know what this behavior means or why it happens.
While raccoons are omnivorous, they eat more plants than animals in most habitats. Included in their diet are nuts, berries, vegetables and fruit including peaches and watermelon. They also eat fish, insects, ant larvae, rodents, frogs and bird eggs. Raccoons in suburban and urban areas eat dog and cat food and are well known for nighttime raids on garbage cans. Their hand-like front paws feature long, dexterous fingers that can open cans, latches, turn on faucets and generally cause trouble.
Raccoon Facts & Features
- Of the world’s seven species of raccoons, five live on tropical islands.
- Raccoons are nocturnal and are seldom active in the daytime.
- In the wild, raccoons can live as long as 16 years; their average life span is 2 – 6 years.
- One raccoon lived in captivity to age 21.
- In most areas raccoons have few, if any, natural predators; primary causes of death are humans, hunting, trapping, cars and malnutrition.
- Coon hunting is practiced extensively in the southern United States; the animals are hunted at night with dogs.
- Northern raccoons are dormant in the winter. They sleep for long periods, but do not hibernate, and emerge during relatively warm periods.
- Except for the relationship between mother and babies, raccoons are solitary animals; they are shy and curious.
- Raccoons have sensitive hearing and excellent night vision.
- Using their hand-like forepaws, raccoons catch prey and climb easily.
- Even though they appear to shuffle when they walk, raccoons can run as fast as 15 mph.
- They are very agile climbers and can tolerate drops of 35 – 40 to feet without being hurt.
In northern areas, raccoons mate from January through March, with the peak time occurring in February. In warmer climates, breeding occurs later in the year. After a 60 – 73 day gestation period, raccoons give birth to 1 to 7 babies in a single litter each year. Females are extremely protective of their babies. After the young are weaned, they begin hunting for food at 2 – 3 months of age, but they remain with their mother for about a year. In order to mate, males travel up to 5 miles from their den; females seldom travel farther than half a mile from home. In general, the animals travel just far enough to satisfy their appetites.
Although people sometimes turn raccoons into pets, it is important to remember they are a wild, rather than a domestic animal. Because they have hands similar to humans and will eat virtually anything, they can be very destructive in a house or recreational vehicle. Also, adult raccoons, whether as pets or in their natural habitat, can be savage fighters if cornered. Few dogs can successfully attack an adult that is lashing out with its teeth and claws. If a fight moves into the water, raccoons may even drown their opponent.
Raccoons sometimes carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans and pets. Because of this, you should not touch wild raccoons or allow them to eat from your pet’s food bowl.
- The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web
- “Raccoon,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved