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HISTORY AND DESCRIPTION: The raccoon is a medium-sized mammal with a black mask and ringed tail. Its fur is gray, brown, or reddish black. This mixture of light and dark colors helps it to easily blend into the forest. Most adult raccoons weigh between 15 and 20 pounds, but may weigh as much as 40. The raccoons tracks look like tiny human hand and footprints, but raccoons cant oppose their thumbs (fold their thumb across their palm) like humans. Despite this fact, the raccoon is very good with its hands and can open garbage cans, jars, and latches. This has made the raccoon a bit of a pest in neighborhoods. The raccoons scientific name, "lotor," means "washer" because it seems to wash its food. However, the raccoon does not always dip its food in water. It may also eat the food even if it is still dirty. Scientists used to think that the raccoon didnt have enough saliva (spit) to swallow its food. They thought the raccoon needed to wet its food to be able to swallow it. But now, we know that raccoons do have enough saliva. The new reason scientists think raccoons wash their food is to press it and squash it to make sure there are no sharp bones or dangerous bits in the food. The name, "raccoon," may have come from the Algonquin Indian word "arukun," which means "he who scratches with his hands."
HABITAT, SENSES, FEEDING: The raccoon lives in almost all areas of the United States and in southern Canada and northern Mexico. Although it prefers to live in woods near a stream or marsh, the raccoon is a very adaptable animal. Instead of using a tree to sleep in, it can use a chimney or a ditch culvert. Because many of the raccoons natural habitat areas are being destroyed, it moves in closer to man, using the same habitat, and even eating the same foods as people. In the wild, a raccoon is omnivorous, eating plants and animals. Its menu includes berries, acorns, grapes, and other plants, baby mice, baby birds and eggs, frogs, crayfish, fiddler crabs, fish, and even some snakes. Around people the raccoon loves to eat the corn in the fields, garbage, and even animals that have been killed by cars. Basically, the raccoon can live almost anywhere and eat almost anything. It can walk, run, climb, and swim. It usually walks on all fours, but can stand up straight to see over tall stumps or grasses. Its sense of touch is very well-developed, but its vision is not very good. The raccoons sense of smell is fairly good at close range, but not from far away. These animals usually live from seven to ten years.
DENS AND REPRODUCTION: Raccoons have a big home range which may overlap the ranges of other raccoons. They live alone and usually avoid other raccoons. Their territory may be as small as ten acres or as large as several miles. It depends on how much food is available. If there is a lot of food nearby, the raccoon doesnt travel much and has a small territory. Raccoons are usually nocturnal (night animals), but in warm states, like Florida, they often come out during the day. They choose several trees inside their home range that they like to sleep in, and use different trees on different nights. Males usually travel more, especially in December when they are looking for a mate. The male does not help to raise the babies and may even attack them, so the female chases him off. She has three to seven babies around February. When they are ten weeks old, the babies leave the den and start following their mother around and learning to hunt. They will stay near her until the fall, when they set out on their own. In the north, where it gets very cold, the babies may stay with their mother over the winter. Raccoons do not hibernate, but in the north, they eat a lot in the fall so they get very fat. They can use that fat for energy to keep warm in the winter when they stay inside their tree den (a hollow space inside a tree.)
DISEASES: Raccoons can catch diseases like rabies and distemper which make them act very strangely. A healthy raccoon will hardly ever walk right up to a person (unless someone has been feeding it). If a raccoon does this, it is may be sick, and a grown-up should be told. Often, the raccoons that get hit by cars are the sick ones (or maybe they were trying to eat other road kills.) People can catch rabies if they are bitten. If you get bitten, you can get shots to stop you from getting the disease. Shots may not feel too good, but theyre definitely better than getting the disease and dying. The best thing to do is NEVER touch, feed, or approach a wild animal. You look very tall and dangerous to a wild animal. It may bite you because it is scared. If you stay away from the animal, it wont be able to bite you!
Rue, Leonard Lee III. Complete Guide to Game Animals. USA: Grolier Book Clubs, Inc. 1981.
Stokes. Donald & Lillian. Animal Tracking and Behavior. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1986.
Whitaker, John O. Jr. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc. 1993.
Provided by the E. Dale Joyner Nature Preserve at Pelotes Island
St. Johns River Power Park, Jacksonville Electric Authority, Florida Power & Light
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