The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Raccoons - They are Intelligent, Neat, and Dainty
Ro Wauer, January 12, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

There are few mammals so well known and admired, but also despised, as the raccoon. It may be cute and fun to watch one minute, but a cunning and devious creature that can wipe out bird feeders or anything else edible left unattended the next. Although it prefers wetlands, it possesses the ability to live practically anywhere in South Texas. One reason for this is its omnivorous behavior, able to eat almost anything alive or dead. Fish, frogs, snakes, snails, small mammals and birds and their eggs are all susceptible. Even vegetable matter is regularly consumed: mesquite beans, grapes, acorns, persimmons, cactus fruits, and all the berries it can find. And in summer, it may even utilize adult and larval wasps and their stored foods.

Raccoons are easily recognized by their robust, small dog-sized appearance, black mask, and ringed tail; an extremely large "coon" may weigh 50 pounds. They are known to scientists as Procyon lotor, Latin for "fore-dog" that washes its food. This is because of its basic appearance and its eccentric habit of washing its food whenever possible. It may even carry food for a considerable distance to wash it before eating. Watching a raccoon with food proves its dexterity; they are able to use their "hands" almost as well as humans. Their fingers are long and extremely sensitive. They are used not only to grasp food, but also to grasp branches when climbing trees, hunt for crayfish, open mussels, strip husks for corn, and pick fruit and nuts. There are few more amazing sights than an old raccoon crouched down by the edge of a pool, looking elsewhere as if totally uninterested, while its fingers are busy exploring every nook and cranny under the bank for some frog that thought itself safe in the underwater retreat.

Raccoons normally den in hollow trees or logs, but sometimes utilize cavities in banks or cliffs, or even in old deserted barns and other structures. Daylight hours are usually spent sleeping, as raccoons are naturally nocturnal in their habits. Their breeding season begins in February, and a single litter of one to seven (average 3 or 4) tiny youngsters are born in April or May. Females handle all of the family chores, from tending the young to teaching them the way of life after leaving the nest. The male refuses to assume any responsibility. William Davis, in "The Mammals of Texas," tells about a female that reared her three newborn in a "nail keg that had been fashioned as a nest site for wood ducks and wired 16 feet up a tree standing in water 20 feet from shore." Raccoons also have been found using a crow's nest as a daytime roost, and in Colorado a mother and her "naked and blind young occupied a large magpie nest" in a scrub oak tree,

Raccoons are polygamous or promiscuous in their relations. Females reach sexual maturity in nine to ten months, but the males become sexually active only when about two years of age. After a brief midwinter courtship, he returns to a solitary bachelor's life.

Early Americans valued the raccoon for its meat, that has a good taste but rather greasy. And its fur was famous for coonskin caps in frontier days. Although it is rarely eaten today, and coonskin caps are more a novelty than a practicality, raccoons remain one of our most abundant and fascinating wildlife.

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I camped out for a full year outside the golden gate sixty yard above the pacific ocean. I got to know a crew of raccoons and they got to know me. Rather than go to war with them I set up an area away from my tent and feed them sardines and tuna out of a can. Soemtimes if they were good I'd get them brazilian nuts and dates, I also talked to them. I noticed that they would come around regularly and watch me doing my campsite chores, they would follow me along as I picked up wood for the fire and old cemetery stones to build this wall. They kinda like hanging around just outside the paraminter. Never did they try to mess with my tent, which was up all the time. They are interesting and their hands are astonishing..

 
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