While we don’t see raccoons much in the winter, it isn’t because they’ve been hibernating. Rather, during cold spells, they seek shelter, often in hollow trees, where they remain for up to a month at a time in a fairly lethargic state (but not true hibernation). If the temperature at night rises above freezing, raccoons are out foraging. Lately their tracks have been very evident, signaling that their nights of inactivity are coming to an end. There isn’t much food for them to find this time of year, so for the most part they are living off the fat that they accumulated last fall.
The relatively warm, wet start to winter has provided us with the opportunity to see riverside tracks that might otherwise not be evident. Raccoons are known for their ability to go anywhere and get into anything and the reason for this dexterity is revealed in their tracks. Both front and hind feet have five long toes. Although the “thumb” is not opposable, it is long enough to grasp things. Because of this dexterity, raccoon tracks can vary widely. In mud and snow, they often resemble small human hands. Typically the toes of the front feet are more splayed out than those of the hind feet.
Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists. They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae). In the fall, prior to going into hibernation, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.” They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight by 35% in some cases. Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories (that’s roughly equivalent to 70 McDonald’s cheeseburgers). Signs of their foraging for grubs and beetles, such as the excavated base of the snag in the photograph, can be found with relative ease at this time of year, if you live where there are black bears. If you do share their territory with them, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources. Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside (my compost bin was destroyed last year but I have no solution for that particular problem), and if you really don’t want any ursine visitors, it’s best to not start feeding birds until most black bears have entered hibernation – late December would be safe most years.