Raccoons are known for their mischievous ways, making them both beloved and bemoaned by the humans they live alongside.
These crafty mammals can be found across most of the United States and Mexico and in parts of Canada. In Illinois, they are widespread across the state, and their population has increased in the last 100 years.
Raccoons have been able to thrive because of their opportunistic ways. They can live most anywhere as long as food, water and shelter are available, and they aren't picky eaters. They are omnivores and will eat almost anything they can get their paws on.
Read on to learn much more about these clever critters.
They're extremely dexterous
Raccoons are pretty good when it comes to getting into garbage cans, bird feeders and all manner of containers where they might find a tasty meal inside. They have their front paws to thank for this skill. Many people have learned the hard way that they can use their front paws to open doors, untie knots and unlock gates, giving them a reputation for being mischief makers. Although their front paws are very adept, raccoons do not have opposable thumbs like humans and some primates do. They do, however, have five long fingers and five long nails on each paw. Although they cannot hold an object with one hand because they lack thumbs, they are able to hold an object with both hands and manipulate it.
Adding to their dexterity is that they have an excellent sense of touch. They have four times to five times more sensory cells in their paws than most mammals, and about 75% of the part of the brain that processes sensory input is dedicated to touch.
Even their name is a nod to their highly skilled front paws. The term raccoon is derived from the native Powhatan word "arahkunem," which means "animal that scratches with its hands."
They wash their food — or do they?
Raccoons have an odd habit of washing their food before they eat it, dipping it in water before consuming it. Even their scientific name, Procyon lotor, describes this behavior, with lotor meaning "the washerman" in Latin. But this habit isn't really about cleanliness. In fact, raccoons go through the same motions with their food even when there is no water to dip it in.
Words to know
Bemoan: To express discontent or sorrow.
Dexterous: Showing or having skill with their hands.
Mischievous: Causing trouble or showing a fondness for causing trouble.
Nocturnal: Active at night.
Omnivore: An animal or person that eats foods of both plant and animal origin.
Pathogen: A bacterium, virus or other microorganism that can cause disease.
Instead, this dipping behavior, called dousing, is because of the sensitive nerves in their front paws, which enhance their sense of touch. When they dip their paws in the water, they are trying to gather more sensory data. A study found that wetting their paws made the nerves in their front paws more responsive, but even without water this behavior helps raccoons better eat their food.
Their bandit masks serve a purpose
Raccoons are often referred to as trash pandas and trash bandits thanks to their scavenging ways, but both those nicknames are related to the black "mask" that covers their eyes. The black markings look like a bandit mask and also are similar to the black fur giant pandas have around their eyes. In raccoons, the mask isn't just for show. Instead, it is thought that the black masking helps enhance their night vision and also reduces glare. This is beneficial because raccoons are mostly nocturnal.
Aside from their black masks, raccoons have mostly brown or grayish-brown fur, although their fur can range in color depending on their habitat. Their only other black markings are on their tails, which can have anywhere from four to 10 black rings. They share their distinctive ringed tails with a related animal, the ringtail.
They thrive in cities
Aside from animals like birds and squirrels, we don't usually think of animals as city dwellers, but raccoons are an exception. You may not see raccoons often in urban areas, but they are certainly there, living their best life. Many things about raccoons make them perfect for city life. For starters, they are almost entirely nocturnal, which helps them avoid encounters and confrontations with people. They will also eat just about anything, from insects and other critters to fruit from trees to food scraps they find in the garbage. Their manual dexterity is also helpful for city living, helping them with everything from catching a meal in waterways to opening latches and garbage cans for easy access to food and shelter.
City living is so good for raccoons that trash bandits living in urban environments generally have a much smaller range than those living in more rural environments. A raccoon in a city may live most of its life in a radius of just a few blocks, while those in more rural environments may have a home range of between 1 1/2 square miles and 10 square miles.
They can carry rabies and other diseases
When we think of rabies, we often think of bats, but any warm-blooded animal can be a carrier of rabies. Raccoons, too, are one of the primary carriers of rabies, along with the aforementioned bats as well as skunks, red foxes and gray foxes. These species are the primary carriers of rabies and are considered vector species, or species that can transmit a pathogen to another living organism.
Seeing a raccoon active during the day isn't necessarily cause for concern or an indicator that animal may have rabies. Instead, raccoons with rabies may be unaware of nearby noise or movement, walk with a staggering gait, have noticeable discharge from their mouth or eyes and have matted or wet facial fur. You can call your local animal control agency if you see a raccoon showing signs of rabies.
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.