2011-11-25 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

Commentary By Stephen S. Yaeger

Raccoons are dwellers of forested and rural areas near water. But many of us living in the Rockaways are well aware that these masked animals are equally at home on our sand-based, urban peninsula (of course most of us are not at home with them). They are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. The wily raccoon, in fact, has completely adapted to human presence even learning to pry lids off garbage cans to get at the delicacies therein. They will also make regular, nightly visits to favorite locales where food has always been available. It’s necessary under the circumstances, to make sure that garbage can lids are secure and that no food is left outside near one’s house. Other than the nourishment supplied by their human neighbors, raccoons will feed on most anything including berries, grains, nuts, bird eggs, squirrels, carrion, mice and insects, among other refreshments. It’s commonly believed that raccoons wash their food in water before eating. What they are actually doing is either softening the food or behaving instinctively, reflecting their natural habit of obtaining food from water. The raccoon is an excellent swimmer.

The common raccoon (Procyon lotor) is found throughout most of North America. They den in hollow trees, rock crevices and brush piles. In the urban/suburban areas they will den in backyards beneath decks or in any abandoned house. Since they are generally nocturnal their presence may not be known until spotted moving about looking for something to feed on. An adult measures some 36 inches from tip of nose to tip of tail. The most distinctive feature is the dark eye mask with white fur just above the eyes and running down the sides of the mask. A stripe runs from its forehead to its nose, which is surrounded by white fur. It has a bushy, ringed (white and black) tail with over all fur color, gray to brown, varying from season to season. Raccoon paws have toes which are very flexible, enabling the animal to grab and hold food and other material. It is an excellent climber and is able to scurry down a tree head first or backward.

Raccoons are most often seen during the summer months during the day. They are solitary animals, except when the female has young to care for. They usually walk to get around, but can run when frightened or after something to eat. A raccoon’s running time has been clocked at 15 miles per hour. They produce a variety of sounds for communication including screaming, hissing, growling, snarling, hissing and whistling.

In the winter the animal is less active spend most of the time in its den, sometimes going for weeks without leaving it. Mating (the male is called a boar and the female a sow) takes place in late winter, January through March, with a litter averaging four cubs (sometimes the litter may consist of six cubs) born in the early spring around April or May. The mother carries the cubs around by grasping their necks as does a cat with its kittens.

The cubs remain with the mother until they are weaned at 70 days and begin to hunt in 9 to 12 weeks. The cubs are well-protected by the mother if threatened by predators and remain with the mother for up to a year.

Questions/comments? E-mail Steve: Drawingonscience@-aol.com

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