Raccoon Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I am overdue to share one of my mammal dossiers. This one is relatively large. As always, the dossier is limited to my own experience. I established it in the mid-1980’s, and since have added dated notes.

Raccoon

Raccoon, Aransas NWR picnic area, Texas

Raccoons occur in a fairly wide range of habitats, though they usually live in areas with some trees and wetlands. They can be abundant in residential areas. Raccoons are nocturnal, spending the day in a hollow tree or a woodchuck burrow (alternatively, in shed, attic, or chimney). They are active all year round, though somewhat less so in winter. They avoid activity in storms or extremely cold temperatures. Sometimes they sun themselves on a branch in summer. Centers of foraging activity are garbage cans in residential areas, and ponds, streams or marshes elsewhere. Their diet is extremely broad, but features small aquatic invertebrates and vertebrates (crayfish especially favored), also fruits and insects from terrestrial areas.

Females have 1 litter of young per year, born mostly in April or early May in northeast Illinois. Young remain in the nest several weeks, then begin following the mother (father doesn’t participate in rearing). Separation begins around September. Young often remain together in 2’s or more through their first winter. The young are especially vocal, uttering a rolling chatter when interacting with one another, giving loud cries when picked up, and occasionally giving a distinctive rising whimper which may be a call for mother. In play, young bounce around with shoulders humped above stiff front legs and hair raised. This probably leads into an aggressive display of adulthood.

21DE86. A well-established trail leads from a bur oak den tree for 20m, then splits 3 ways into fainter paths. All sets of tracks visible on that trunk led away from the den tree.

Raccoons, creatures of habit with a heavy walk on flat feet, produce clear trails in winter.

15JA87. Raccoon tracks in Willowbrook Back 40 are the first sign of that species I have seen on several preserves since heavy snow fell almost a week ago. This one seemed to be trying to minimize contact with the snow by walking on logs, walking on melted patches, and bounding in open stretches where deeper snow couldn’t be avoided.

20JA87. No raccoon signs in 3 days since new snow.

9FE87. Raccoon were active in the center of the Willowbrook Back 40 last night.

3JE87. A raccoon gnawed on a rabbit hind foot in brush near the great horned owl nest, Willowbrook Forest Preserve, at mid-day. It ran off quietly as I passed, at a fast diagonal walk or a trot.

22AU87. Photo and sketch of raccoon gallop, lope. 15 inches up to next set, 16.5 inches back to previous set, which was 14 x 5.5″ and looked a little more gallop-like. The set before that (19 inches back) was a gallop, borderline bound.

Sketch of raccoon gallop

Sketch of raccoon lope

14NO87. A raccoon was dying of distemper at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. It was on its back, eyes crusted shut.

Canine distemper is one of the most important causes of death in northeast Illinois raccoons.

10DE87. Lots of fresh raccoon tracks are all over Willowbrook Back 40 trails, compared to only 1 fresh set of opossum tracks.

23DE87. There has been some raccoon activity in recent nights, and much opossum activity.

16JA88. Considerable raccoon action last night, which was warm. No opossum tracks.

20JA88. Lots of raccoon and opossum activity last 2 warm nights, Willowbrook. The stream was high, no crossings observed.

The flat-footed, 5-fingered raccoon footprint is distinctive.

17MY88. A raccoon was resting, perhaps sleeping, on an exposed horizontal branch near the top of a big willow, at midday.

12OC88. A raccoon was out at midday, Willowbrook Back 40 (I made several daytime observations of this animal in the rest of this month).

19DE88. 2 raccoons but no opossums were active the last 2 nights around the Back 40 Nature Trail.

Raccoons normally walk in the pace gait.

9MR89. Despite increased warmth over past 2 nights, there has been no use of trails by raccoons.

2AP89. Photos of 2 raccoons asleep in the 29-inch pin oak near the NE corner of Cactus Camp, near Hartz Lake, in Indiana. I saw the one in the hole first, didn’t see the other (in the crotch of a fork just above hole) until I looked with binoculars.

The raccoons described on April 2, 1989. These probably were siblings from the previous year, not yet breeding.

13MY89. 2 raccoons in the same sleeping places as on 2AP.

10JE90. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. A raccoon was active in the woods not far from the river (though at least 30 yards from it), half an hour after sunrise, foraging among Solomon’s plume in the forest. When I, standing still 15 yards away, shifted, it jumped onto a tree trunk, but I kept still in my camo sweatshirt and the raccoon resumed its foraging. Later I looked at the area. The vegetation was stepped on and disrupted, with common 2-3-inch holes, scrapes.

26JA92. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Raccoons were active last night (fresh snow yesterday, overnight low around 20F). I found a raccoon inside a hollow oak, at ground level, sheltered by the overhang of the leaning trunk. It looked back at me, but did nothing more.

JE99. Tracks seen at Horsethief Canyon, central Kansas.

19JA99. Willowbrook. Raccoons came out for the first time since the major snowstorm of 2JA, sometime between the 15th and today.

26JA00. In spite of the very cold previous night (subzero F), raccoons were out, at least 2 individuals moving together. This winter a group of raccoons is moving back and forth between a den high up in a dead willow near the Willowbrook bridge, and a den along the nature trail in a smaller dying willow. On the coldest nights they tend not to use the bridge willow den, which is higher up and has a larger hole which goes practically down to the bottom of the den. The trail willow den has a smaller hole, is not so exposed, and at least one animal can fit below the bottom edge of the hole. On the warmer nights, though, they seem to prefer the more spacious bridge willow den.

Raccoon skeleton. Raccoon and deer bones are the ones most frequently encountered in the field.

31JA00. A raccoon was out last night in the newly added 6 inches of snow, gait in the deep snow entirely a diagonal walk for a long distance.

4MR00. Hemlock Hill, Morton Arboretum. After a night that dropped into the 20’s, a raccoon slept in the open crotch of a large red oak, 10 feet off the ground. Now sunny, 30’s.

1AP00. While running on the Prairie Path between Butterfield and Kirk Roads, I spotted a raccoon sleeping on a large, open branch of an oak in a small wooded area beside the trail. A warm, sunny day.

30AP00. Raccoon snoozing in a dead tree trunk, largely hidden in a rotted out cavity 12 feet up and only about 20 feet from the busy main trail at Waterfall Glen (section parallel to S railroad tracks).

The raccoon skull is distinctive in its size, rounded form, and mix of canine and flattened molar teeth.

9AU00. Last night at 3am, loud cries eventually got me out of a deep sleep. Going to the window I saw a raccoon below, uttering the last of the cries. They were loud, and different from other raccoon vocalizations I have heard. The sound was sniffing or snorting, even whinnying in quality but very high pitched and sounding like a conflict or fear-driven vocalization.

28DE00. At 1:30 p.m., a raccoon was eating snow from the large upper limbs of the big, largely dead tree 40‑50 yards NNE of the Willowbrook office building (visible from the north office window). It then turned around and climbed down into the large crack on the SE corner of the trunk. This marks the 4th confirmed den on the preserve, and the 3rd winter den (the hollow catalpa behind the opossum cage in the outdoor animal exhibit is known only to have been used by a female to keep her tiny cubs in spring of this year). The deep snow that fell in mid-December has kept raccoons in their dens for more than 2 weeks.

Raccoons create communal toilets, often on elevated tree branches. This one, at the base of several joined tree trunks, shows a heavy recent diet of mulberries by the local raccoons.

13JA01. At 10:30 a.m., a large raccoon was walking a deer trail near the place where the regional trail crosses the back marsh at Herrick Lake. It seemed perfectly healthy. After a short time it left the deer trail and, with some effort, forged its own path through the still-deep snow.

26AP01. Sounds of baby raccoons coming from the same catalpa as last year at Willowbrook. (Last year she moved the 2 young to another tree when they were old enough to walk; this one has a very small entrance).

Older youngsters peek out from their den.

19MY01. A large raccoon was well exposed on the open branches of a dying oak at the Arboretum, grooming itself at 9 a.m.

21MR02. A raccoon shifted into a diagonal walk on a wet-snow hillside. Better traction? No overlap-separation between the tracks of each side. Elsewhere in flat areas, it used the pace gait.

14AP02. A female raccoon carrying a baby smaller than her head, more than 250 yards along the edge of the east side of Lake Maxinkuckee (Indiana), between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m.

2012. My notes since 2002 have been logged mainly in my natural history survey records at Willowbrook, Fullersburg and Mayslake. At Willowbrook it seemed that every year a female had her litter in a smaller den (warmer? more secure from males?), and at some point shifted them to a larger more open one. At Fullersburg I was impressed by the raccoons’ willingness to go out on very cold nights that elsewhere usually would keep them in. Even on single digit (F) nights, they routinely swam across Salt Creek rather than going the long way and taking a bridge. I started this blog at the same time my office shifted to Mayslake, and any significant observations from November 2008 on could be found by searching on “raccoon.”

Raccoon Skeleton

by Carl Strang

Last year in late March I found a dead raccoon in the south savanna at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

It appeared that the animal died of canine distemper.

The carcass has decomposed over the past year, and now only the skeleton remains.

The roundish looking skull is worth studying. It seems that most of the skulls people find in our area are those of raccoons.

In time even the bones will be gone. It will be interesting to see if the plants growing there are more vigorous, with the extra nitrogen and other nutrients the raccoon’s body added to the soil.

Raccoon Skull

by Carl Strang

 

I was tempted to title this one, “Am I Psychic, or What?” I was stationed at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center for nearly 25 years. One thing I miss about having transferred to another preserve is the questions. Willowbrook gets more telephone calls than any other location in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County because that is where the wildlife hospital is located, and that is where wildlife questions get answered. The front desk staff there can handle just about any question that comes along, but once in a while they need to pass one along to Willowbrook’s Naturalist staff. When a skull comes in for identification, the call goes back to the Naturalists’ crowded office (four people occupy a space that by rights should have only one person in it; this is a small daily heroism, but I digress).

 

“We have a skull for you to identify.” I put on my turban and say, “Raccoon,” then go up front and, nine times out of ten, I’m right.

 

raccoon-skull-b

 

But this perhaps should inspire the start of an inquiry. Why are most skulls brought in for identification those that once occupied the heads of masked and ring-tailed members of order Carnivora? I have my theory, and here it is. Smaller mammals, and all birds whatever their size, have relatively small or thin-boned skulls. They are less often found in the quick time it takes for them to decompose or be crushed by the physical forces of nature. Being smaller, they are less likely to be spotted. Larger skulls belong to animals that are less common than raccoons, animals that for one reason or another are less likely to die where someone will find them. The raccoon strikes that happy medium, the most common animal with a skull large enough and persistent enough that someone is likely to spot it, an animal that often dies near a trail, in a yard, or in general where someone will run across it. That’s my hypothesis, anyway. Until I have reason to suspect that another explanation is needed, this is one topic that I won’t feel needs further inquiry.

 

So, apart from size, what distinguishes a raccoon skull? The other mammals with similar sized skulls in our area are opossums and foxes. Opossums have huge ridges protruding from the tops of their heads. These serve as anchors for powerful jaw muscles, and incidentally they highlight the relatively teeny weeny brain case. Foxes have narrower snouts, giving their skulls a more pointed shape. Also, raccoon molars are much like ours, reflecting their diet which, like ours, is omnivorous. The size, the roundness of the skull and the mix of teeth make the raccoon’s skull a quick identification.

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