Raccoons


Raccoon

Figure 1: Photo Credit - Ginger Holser

Overview

The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is a native mammal of Maine, measuring about three feet long, including its 12-inch, bushy, ringed tail. Because its hind legs are longer than the front legs, the raccoon has a hunched appearance when it walks or runs. Each of its front feet has five dexterous toes, allowing raccoons to grasp and manipulate food and other items. (Fig. 1)

Raccoons prefer forested areas near a stream or water source, but have adapted to various environments throughout the state. Raccoon populations can get quite large in urban areas, owing to restrictions on and trapping, lack of predators, and food supplied by humans.

Adult raccoons weigh 15 to 40 pounds, their weight being a result of genetics, age, available food and habitat location. Males have weighed in at over 60 pounds. A raccoon in the wild will probably weigh less than the urbanized raccoon that has learned to live on handouts, pet food and garbage-can leftovers.

As long as raccoons are kept out of human homes, are not cornered, and are treated as wild animals rather than pets, they are not dangerous.

Because raccoons manipulate and moisten food items in water, there is a misconception that raccoons "wash" their food before eating it. However, when water is not available, raccoons use many of the same motions in handling food. (Fig. 1)

Facts about Raccoons

Food and Feeding Behavior

  • Raccoons will eat almost anything, but are particularly fond of creatures found in water – clams, crayfish, frogs, fish, and snails.
  • Raccoons also eat insects, slugs, dead animals, carrion, birds, bird eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. When garbage and pet food are accessible, raccoons will often eat these items, too.
  • Although not great hunters, raccoons can catch young birds, squirrels, mice and rats.
  • Except during the breeding season and when females are with young, raccoons are solitary. Individuals will eat together if a large amount of food is available in an area.

Den Sites and Resting Sites

  • Raccoons take shelter and raise young in dens. They may use burrows that other mammals have dug and abandoned, holes in trees, hollow logs, or areas under large rock or brush piles. They may also take advantage of wood duck nest-boxes, attics, crawl spaces, chimneys and abandoned vehicles.
  • In urban areas, raccoons normally use den sites as daytime rest sites. In wooded areas, they often rest in trees.
  • Raccoons generally move to a different den or daytime rest site every few days, but do not follow a predictable pattern. Only a female with young or an animal "holed up" during a cold spell will use the same den for any length of time.
  • Several raccoons may den together during winter storms.

Reproduction and Home Range

  • Raccoons pair up only during the breeding season. Mating occurs as early as January to as late as June. The peak mating period is February.
  • The female bears two or three kits after a 63-day gestation period.
  • The kits remain in the den until they are about seven weeks old, at which time they can walk, run, climb, and begin to occupy alternate dens.
  • At eight to ten weeks of age, the young regularly accompany their mother outside the den and forage for themselves. By 12 weeks, the kits roam on their own for several nights before returning to their mother.
  • The kits remain with their mother in her home range through winter. In early spring seek out their own territories.
  • The size of a raccoon's home range, as well as its nightly hunting area, varies greatly depending on the habitat and food supply. In urban areas, a raccoon may travel a mile and still be in its home range.

Mortality and Longevity

  • Raccoons die from vehicle collisions, disease, starvation and predation. Hunters and trappers also take raccoons.
  • Young raccoons are the main victims of starvation, since they have very little fat reserve to draw from during food shortages in late winter and early spring.
  • Bobcats, coyotes and domestic dogs will prey on raccoons; large owls and eagles will prey on young.
  • The average life span of a raccoon in the wild is two to three years; captive animals have lived to the age of 13.

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Viewing Raccoons

Raccoons are usually active at night, but can occasionally be spotted during the day eating, searching for food, or napping in a tree. Coastal raccoons take advantage of low tides, whether during the day or night, to forage for shellfish and other food. Once nightly temperatures fall below 25 degrees F, raccoons retreat to their dens, but may occasionally be seen during warm spells in late fall and early spring.

Trails

Raccoons take advantage of trails that other wildlife or humans have made, particularly those next to water or in the shelter of woodlands or overgrown fields. They also use culverts to move safely from one side of a road to the other. With a marsh on one side and woods on the other, the culvert becomes the chief route back and forth. In developed areas, raccoon travel along fences, next to buildings, and near food sources.

Raccoon Tracks

Figure 2: Drawing Credit - Pandell and Stall

Tracks, Scratch Marks, and Similar Signs

Look for tracks in sand, mud, or soft soil, particularly at either end of a culvert. Also check deck railings, fire escapes, and other surfaces that raccoons use to gain access to structures. (Fig. 2) Tracks may appear as smudge marks on the side of a house where a raccoon shimmies up and descends a downspout or utility pipe.

Sharp, non-retractable claws and long digits make raccoons good climbers. Like squirrels, raccoons can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees and descend trees headfirst. (Cats have claws that do not rotate, they have to back down trees) Scan for scratch marks on trees and other structures that raccoons climb.

Look for wear marks, body oil, and hairs on wood and other rough surfaces, particularly around the edges of den entrances. The den's entrance hole is usually at least four inches high and six inches wide.

Both front and back feet have five toes. The rear foot, which shows the "heel," looks like a small human footprint; the hind tracks are three to four inches long. The front prints have shorter heel marks and are two to three inches long. (Fig. 2)

Droppings

Note: Raccoon droppings may carry a parasite that can be fatal to humans. Do not handle or smell raccoon droppings (the parasite can be inhaled) and wash your hands if you touch droppings.

Raccoon droppings, which are crumbly and flat-ended, can contain a variety of food items. They are three to five inches long, but are usually broken into segments. They are about half an inch to one inch in diameter, about the size of the end of your little finger.

Raccoons defecate before climbing trees and entering structures. They create toilet areas – called "latrines" – inside and outside structures and away from the nesting area. (House cats have similar habits). You may also find scat at the base of trees, on logs and on roofs.

Calls

Raccoons make several types of noises, including a purr, a chittering sound, and various growls, snarls, and snorts.

Raccoons Too Close for Comfort

If a raccoon comes too close to you, make yourself appear larger. If you are sitting, stand up, shout and wave your arms. If necessary, throw stones or send the raccoon off with a dousing of water from a hose or bucket.

If a raccoon continues to act aggressively or strangely (circling, staggering as if drunk or disoriented) or shows unnatural tameness, it may be sick or injured. Call a game warden, your regional wildlife office, or the state police.

If aggressive raccoons are routinely seen in your area, prepare children for a possible encounter. Explain why raccoons live in the area (habitat, food sources, species adaptability) and what the children should do if one approaches. Teach them to shout a set phrase such as "Go away raccoon!" instead of simply screaming, thereby informing nearby adults of the animal's presence. Demonstrate and rehearse encounter behavior with the children.

If a raccoon finds its way into your house, stay calm, close surrounding interior doors, leave the room, and let the animal find its way back out through the open door, window or pet door. If necessary, gently use a broom to corral the raccoon outside. Do not corner a raccoon, thereby forcing it to defend itself.

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Preventing Conflicts

A raccoon's search for food may lead it to a vegetable garden, fish pond, garbage can or chicken coop. It may find a den in an attic, chimney, or crawl space. The most effective way to prevent conflicts is to modify the habitat around your home to make it unattractive to raccoons.

Don't feed raccoons. Feeding raccoons may create an undesirable situation for your family, neighbors, pets and the raccoons themselves. Human-fed raccoons often lose their fear of people and may become aggressive when they do not receive handouts as expected. Feeding also encourages raccoons to concentrate in a small area; overcrowding can spread diseases and parasites. Finally, these hungry visitors might approach a neighbor who does not share your appreciation of the animals. The neighbor might choose to remove these raccoons, or have them removed.

Prevent raccoons from gaining access to your garbage. Keep your garbage can lid on tight by securing it with rope, chain, bungee cords or weights. Better yet, buy garbage cans with clamps or other mechanisms that hold lids on. To prevent tipping, secure side handles to metal or wooden stakes driven into the ground. Or, keep your cans in tight-fitting bins, a shed or a garage. Put garbage cans out for pickup in the morning, after raccoons have returned to their resting areas.

Feed dogs and cats indoors and keep them in at night. If you must feed your pets outside, do so in late morning or around noon, and pick up food, water bowls, leftovers and spilled food daily well before dark.

Keep pets indoors at night. If cornered, raccoons may attack dogs and cats. Bite wounds from raccoons can cause fractures and transmit disease.

Prevent raccoons from entering pet doors. Lock the pet door at night. If it is necessary to have it remain open, put an electronically activated opener on your pet's collar.

Note: Floodlights or motion detector lights placed above the pet door to scare raccoons are not long-term solutions. Keep indoor pet food and any other food away from a pet door.

Put food in secure compost containers and clean up barbecue areas. Do not put food of any kind in an open compost pile; instead, use a securely covered compost structure or a commercially available raccoon-proof composter. A covered worm box also works. Your goal is to prevent attracting raccoons and to keep yourself from being exposed to their disease-carrying droppings.

**Clean barbecue grills and grease traps thoroughly following each use.

Prevent damage to lawns. Raccoons (and skunks) are attracted to the grubs and worms that live beneath sod. For more information about preventing damage, go to "Skunks" on the main menu.

Eliminate access to denning sites. Raccoons commonly use chimneys, attics and spaces under houses, porches and sheds as den sites. Close any potential entries with one-quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth, boards or metal flashing. Make all connections flush and secure to keep mice, rats and other mammals out. Make sure you don't trap an animal inside when you seal off a potential entry. For information on securing chimneys, see below.

Aluminum Flashing

Figure 3: Drawing Credit - Jennifer Rees

Raccoon

Figure 4: Drawing Credit - Jennifer Rees

Prevent raccoons from accessing rooftops by trimming nearby tree limbs and by attaching sheets of metal flashing around corners of buildings. (Fig. 3) Farm supply centers and bird-control supply companies on the Internet often carry commercial products that prevent climbing. (Fig. 4) Remove vegetation on buildings, such as English ivy, that allows raccoons to climb walls. Hide or close the opening through which they crawl into the building.

Eliminate access to rooftops by installing sheets of aluminum flashing that are at least three feet square around the corners of buildings. (Fig. 3)

Commercially available metal or plastic spikes can help keep raccoons off of buildings. (Fig. 4)

Raccoons in Dumpsters and Down Chimneys

Raccoons are enticed by the food smells in dumpsters. When the lids are open they climb in and can't climb the slippery sides to get out. To help them escape, put a strong branch or board in the dumpster. If your disposal company leaves dumpster lids open, install a sign telling employees that it's vital to keep the lid closed so animals do not get trapped inside. Consider installing a totally enclosed trash-compacting dumpster. (You deposit your trash in the front; the trash is regularly compacted)

In spring and summer, a female raccoon may be enticed into the dark, quiet and secure environment of your chimney to nest. If you hear a large animal on the roof, or growls and whines coming from the chimney at night, there is probably a raccoon family inside. Using a powerful flashlight during the day, check whether animals have taken up residence. If spider webs are strung across the inside, you can be reasonably sure that no animal is using the chimney.

After eight to ten weeks the female and young will leave and not return. The easiest solution is to wait for the raccoons to move out on their own.

If you need to evict the animals, do not smoke them out and do not pour anything, including naphtha flakes or mothballs, down the chimney. Adult raccoons can easily climb out of a chimney, but the concentrated vapors can make the female extremely agitated while it attempts to flee. Baby raccoons cannot climb, so these measures will not evict them; in addition, the strong vapors can damage the mucous membranes of the infants.

Instead, harass the adult female using the following methods until being it is no longer worth her effort to stay. One by one, she will pick up each young animal in her mouth, latching on to the back of its neck, and move it to an alternate den. Note: Any time you try to evict any mother animal, there is a chance that she may leave some or all of the young behind.

To encourage the female raccoon to leave:

Chimney Cap

Figure 5: Drawing Credit - Jennifer Rees

To make sure the eviction process was successful, shine a powerful flashlight down the chimney during the day. Tap the chimney with a hard object and listen for any sounds of movement. If a young raccoon is left behind, it may be that the mother has abandoned it. In these rare cases it is best to hire a wildlife damage control company to remove the animal.

In urban areas, harassment techniques may not work because raccoons have become familiar with humans. If this is the case, call a wildlife damage control company and have them assess the situation.

Once the raccoons are gone, promptly call a professional chimney sweep to remove any debris and to install a commercially designed and engineered chimney cap. (Homemade caps are often unsafe and may be a fire hazard) The new cap will allow you to have fires in your fireplace or wood stove, but will keep raccoons and other wildlife from entering. (Fig. 5)

A commercial chimney cap will prevent raccoons and other small animals from entering the chimney. (Fig. 5)

Enclose poultry in a secure outdoor pen and house. Raccoons will eat chickens, ducks and turkeys and their eggs. Signs of raccoon predation include the birds' heads bitten off and left some distance away, only the bird's crop being eaten, stuck birds pulled half-way through a fence, and nests in severe disarray. Note: Coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, feral cats, dogs, bobcats, opossums, weasels, hawks and owls will also prey on poultry.

If a dead bird is found with no apparent injuries, skinning it may determine what killed it. If the carcass is patterned by red spots where pointed teeth have bruised the flesh but not broken the skin, the bird was probably "played with" by one or more dogs until it died.

To prevent raccoons and other animals from accessing birds in their night roosts, equip the poultry house with a well-fitting door and a secure locking mechanism. A raccoon's dexterous paws make it possible for it to open various types of fasteners and latches.

To prevent raccoons and other animals from accessing poultry during the day, completely enclose outdoor pens with one-inch chicken wire placed over a sturdy wooden framework. Overlap and securely wire all seams on top to prevent raccoons from forcing their way in by using their weight and claws. To prevent raccoons from reaching in at ground level, surround the bottom 18 inches of the pen with smaller-mesh wire. (See "Preventing Conflicts with Skunks" for strategies to prevent raccoons from digging into enclosures)

Wires

Figure 6: Drawing Credit - Jennifer Rees

Fence orchards and vegetable gardens. Raccoons can easily climb wood or wire fences, or bypass them by using overhanging limbs of trees or shrubs. (See Figs. 6 and 8 for examples of ways to prevent raccoons from climbing fences and accessing crops at ground level) Wire fences will need to have a mesh size that is no wider than three inches to keep young raccoons out.

Install electrified wires 12 and 18 inches above ground on existing fence posts, poultry pen supports, and other structures, using the proper insulators. A single strand of wire may be sufficient, but two wires will provide added insurance that the animal will not climb up the post. Run one or two electrified wires toward the top of the fence to prevent other species from jumping the lower hot wires. (Fig. 6)

Protect fruit trees, bird feeders, and nest boxes. To prevent raccoons from climbing trees, poles, and other vertical structures, install a metal or heavy plastic barrier. (Fig. 7) Twenty-four-inch long aluminum or galvanized vent-pipe, available at most hardware stores, can serve as a barrier around a narrow support.

Note: Raccoons will attempt to use surrounding trees or structures as an avenue to access the area above the barrier.

Alternatively, a funnel-shaped piece of aluminum flashing can be fitted around the tree or other vertical structure. The outside edge of the flared metal should be a minimum of 18 inches away from the support. Cut the material with tin snips and file down any sharp edges.

Chimney Cap

Figure 7a: Drawing Credit - Jennifer Rees

Chimney Cap

Figure 7b: Drawing Credit - Jennifer Rees

Regularly pick up fallen fruit to prevent attracting raccoons.

To prevent raccoons from climbing, secure guard around trees, pipes, posts and other structures. The guard can be made from a piece of aluminum flashing or sheet metal held together with wire, nails or screws, and then painted to blend in. (Fig. 7)

Discourage raccoons from disturbing pond plants and other aquatic life. Raccoons are attracted to ponds because ponds are a source of food. Although it is tempting to simply install a motion-activated light or sprinkler – or shout at the animal when you see it – these tactics are at best temporarily effective. A raccoon, especially an urban raccoon, may run away the first night and walk away the second night. If there is no additional deterrent, however, by the third or fourth night the animal will be back even as the light shines brightly or the sprinkler sends out strong sprays of water.

To deter the animal, you must protect potential food or secure the pond itself:

Construct hiding places for fish by placing cinder blocks, ceramic drain tile, wire baskets, or upside-down plastic crates held in place with heavy rocks on the bottom of the pond.

To prevent raccoons from disturbing aquatic plants in containers, use containers that are too heavy or wide for raccoons to overturn. Securing chicken wire over the top of the containers to prevent raccoons from disturbing the soil inside.

Small ponds can be completely covered with a barrier that can be left on permanently or removed daily. Since raccoons are nocturnal, be sure the pond is covered at night. Examples of barriers include one-inch mesh chicken wire laid over the surface and held in place with stakes – raccoons will walk on the barrier and try and go under it. (While black bird-netting is less conspicuous, raccoons and other animals can easily get entangled in it) A wooden or PVC pipe frame covered with wire mesh can also be built to cover the pond. Maneuvering over pond plants with any of the above can be difficult.

Or, you can construct a frame from heavy plastic lattice available from home improvement centers. Carefully cut the lattice so it fits in the pond; cut out pieces to accommodate any pond plants. Cover the lattice with bird netting. (with the solid backing, animals are less likely to become entangled in the netting) The netting can be glued to the lattice using Shoe Goo® or other waterproof glue.

For larger ponds, stake two-foot wide strips of chicken wire flat around the inside of the pond edge where raccoons are entering. Cut the wire as needed to match the curvature of the pond. Raccoons will have difficulty reaching over the wire, and will hesitate to stand on it because of its instability. To camouflage and extend the life of the wire, spray it with dark-colored automobile undercoat paint or other rustproof paint.

Ponds with steep, two-foot high side walls discourage raccoons from entering the water, but may be a safety hazard for small children and the elderly. These hazardous areas can be located away from paths and/or be heavily buffered with dense growths of tall marginal plants and shrubs.

Field Crops

Figure 8: Drawing Credit - Jennifer Rees

Two electrified wires, six and 12 inches above ground and just back from the water's edge will deter raccoons. A single strand of wire may be sufficient, but two wires will provide added insurance against the animal making the climb. The wires can be hooked up to a switch for discretionary use; when you want to work near the wire, turn the system off. Where the barrier presents a safety problem, attach signs, short pieces of white cloth, or other material on the wire for visibility.

Install two electrified wires, six and 12 inches above ground around field crops and other areas needing protection. The fence can be hooked up to a switch for discretionary use; when you want to work near it, turn the system off. Where the fence presents a safety problem, install signs, short pieces of white cloth, or other material on the wire for visibility. (Fig. 8)

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Trapping Raccoons

Trapping and relocating a raccoon several miles away seems an appealing method of resolving a conflict because it is perceived as giving the "problem animal" a second chance in a new home. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is quite different. Raccoons typically try to return to their original territories, often getting hit by a car or killed by a predator in the process. If they remain in the new area, they may get into fights (often to the death) with resident raccoons for limited food, shelter, or nesting sites. Raccoons may also transmit diseases to rural populations that they have picked up from urban pets. Finally, if a place "in the wild" or an urban green space is perfect for raccoons, raccoons are probably already there. It isn't fair to the animals already living there to release another competitor into their home range.

Raccoons accustomed to a particular food source, type of shelter, or human activity will seek out familiar situations and surroundings. People, organizations or agencies that illegally move raccoons should be willing to assume liability for any damages or injuries caused by these animals. Precisely for these reasons, raccoons posing a threat to human and pet safety should not be relocated.

In many cases, moving raccoons will not solve the original problem because other raccoons will replace them and cause similar conflicts. Hence, it is more effective to make the site less attractive to raccoons than it is to routinely trap them.

Trapping also may not be legal in some urban areas; check with local authorities. Transporting animals without the proper permit is also unlawful in most cases.

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Lethal Control

Lethal control is a last resort and cannot be justified without first applying the above-described non-lethal control techniques. Lethal control is rarely a long-term solution as other raccoons are likely to move in if food if attractive food items such as garbage and pet foods are not eliminated or secured at the site.

If all efforts to dissuade a problem raccoon fail, the animal may have to be trapped. See Trapping Wildlife for information on trapping raccoons.

While shooting can be effective in eliminating a single raccoon, it is generally limited to rural situations. Shooting is considered too hazardous in more populated areas, even when legal.

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Public Health Concerns

Canine distemper contributes significantly to raccoon mortality. It is also fatal to domestic dogs, foxes, coyotes, mink, otters, weasels and skunks. It is caused by a virus and is spread most often when animals come in contact with the bodily secretions of animals infected with the disease. Gloves, cages, and other objects that have come in contact with infected animals can also contain the virus. The best prevention against canine distemper is to have your dogs vaccinated and kept away from raccoons.

Raccoons in Maine often have roundworms (like domestic dogs and cats do, but from a different worm). Raccoon roundworm does not usually cause a serious problem for raccoons, but roundworm eggs shed in droppings can cause mild to serious illness in other animals and humans. Although rarely documented anywhere in the United States, raccoon roundworm can infect a person who accidentally ingests or inhales the parasite's eggs.

Prevention consists of never touching or smelling raccoon droppings, using rubber gloves and a mask when cleaning areas (including traps) that have been occupied by raccoons, and keeping young children and pets away from areas where raccoons concentrate. If washing raccoon droppings from a roof, for example, make sure that the water doesn't splash toys, a patio, or other similar items. Routinely encourage children to wash their hands after playing outdoors and assist them in doing so. Unfortunately, raccoon roundworm eggs can remain alive in soil and other places for several months.

Raccoons can carry rabies. If someone receives a raccoon bite or scratch, immediately scrub the wound with soap and water, then flush it liberally with tap water. Contact your physician and the local health department immediately. If your pet is bitten, follow the same cleansing procedure and contact your veterinarian. If at all possible, try to recover the animal or note where it goes, as it should be submitted to the Department of Health for rabies testing.

In addition, as previously noted, raccoon droppings may carry a parasite that can be fatal to humans. Do not handle or smell raccoon droppings (the parasite can be inhaled) and wash your hands if you touch droppings.

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Legal Status

The raccoon is classified as both a furbearer and a game animal, and a hunting or trapping license is required to hunt or trap raccoons during an open season. Because legal status, trapping restrictions, and other information about raccoons change, contact your local Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Regional Office for updates.

If a raccoon is causing damage or is a nuisance, consult Maine's laws on this subject: http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/12/title12ch921sec0.html


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Additional Information

Books

New England Wildlife, Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution
Written by: Richard DeGraff, and Mariko Yamasaki
University Press of New England, 2001.
(Available from: www.upne.com)

Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts: The Science of Wildlife Damage Management
Written by: Michael Conover
Lewis Publishers, 2002.

Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage
Written by: Scott E. Hygnstrom, et al.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1994.
(Available from: University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, 202 Natural Resources Hall, Lincoln, NE 68583-0819; phone: 402-472-2188; also see Internet Sites below.)

Internet Resources

Adapted from: "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest"
(see Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Written by: Russell Link, Wildlife Biologist, Email Russell Link, with assistance from WDFW Biologists Rich Beausoleil and Rocky Spencer

Design and layout: Peggy Ushakoff, ITT2

Illustrations: As credited

Copyright 2005 by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


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