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Posts tagged “Procyon lotor

Raccoon Latrines

A reliable way to determine an animal’s diet is to examine their scat, ideally several scats over the span of a few days, in every season. This is easily done with Raccoons, as they often create communal sites called latrines where they repeatedly defecate. The pictured latrine consists of several scats containing corn, apples and grapes.

Latrines are usually found at the base of trees, in forks of trees, or on raised areas such as fallen logs, stumps, or large rocks.  Should you discover a latrine and your curiosity has you inspecting the scat contents, do so with caution.  Raccoons are the primary host of Baylisascaris procyonis, a roundworm that is the cause of a fatal nervous system disease in wild animals.  The eggs of  Baylisascaris procyonis can be harmful to people if they are swallowed or inhaled. Raccoon roundworm eggs (invisible to the naked eye) are passed in the feces of infected raccoons at the rate of 20,000 eggs per gram of feces. Although human infections are rare, they can lead to irreversible brain, heart, and sometimes eye, damage and death.

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Raccoons Preparing For Winter

Much like black bears, raccoons develop a voracious appetite in the fall and accumulate a life-sustaining layer of fat as a result (which comprises 50% of their weight).  Although raccoons are opportunists and will eat just about anything (except tomatoes), nuts (acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts, especially) and corn are the food of choice at this time of year.

When the temperature consistently drops to 26-28° F. raccoons typically seek shelter in dens (hollow trees, woodchuck and fox burrows). They are not true hibernators, but do enter a state of torpor for weeks and even months at a time when the temperature is low, the snow is deep and the wind is blowing.  It’s not unusual for several raccoons, usually relatives, to den together.

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Raccoons Stirring

2-16-18  raccoon tracks IMG_2312.jpg

Even in mid-February, there are signs of spring.  Tracks of animals that hole up during the cold winter months and emerge when the nights are warmer are starting to be seen.

Raccoons often seek shelter in dens for months at a time during the winter (they don’t technically hibernate, but experience torpor).  When night temperatures rise above freezing they abandon their hollow tree cavities, often following streams or visiting wetlands. Although they occasionally may forage for aquatic prey such as fish or crayfish, Raccoons in New England eat very little during the winter. Rather, they utilize the fat they store in the fall, which is often more than 40% of their body weight. By the time spring arrives, they may have lost half of their fall weight.

If you find tracks this time of year that lead to or away from a den they may well be those of a male Raccoon who has emerged to seek out a mate.

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Raccoons Active

1-31-17-raccoon-664

Yesterday’s mystery tracks were those of a raccoon that was following a partially-open stream, emerging from the water only when it was necessary to cross ice in order to get to the next patch of open water. Temperatures have been on the mild side recently, so raccoons have been active. During very cold periods raccoons become lethargic and tend to seek shelter in hollow trees or other retreats where they may remain for up to a month or so. When the temperature at night rises above 32°F., they become active, but little or no food is consumed. Instead, they live off body fat (up to 30% of their weight) they accumulated in the fall. In addition to recent warm weather coaxing Raccoons to become active, February is the peak of their mating season.

(Muskrat, Otter and Beaver were the three other 5-toed, water-loving mammals that received the most “votes,” all viable guesses. The Raccoon’s front and hind feet are more dissimilar from each other than those of Muskrats or Otters are, and a Beaver’s hind feet are webbed and considerably larger than a Raccoon’s.)

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Young Raccoons Leaving Natal Dens

7-7-16  young raccoons 490Most raccoons in the Northeast are born in April or early May and spend the next seven weeks inside a tree cavity (brush piles and underground burrows are known but not prevalent denning sites) living off their mother’s milk.  Four to six weeks go by before the young are able to stand upright, but soon thereafter they are climbing and hanging out of the cavity entrance.  The young raccoons are in the process of being weaned when they leave their den at the age of seven weeks.  For the next month or so the mother raccoon and her offspring forage together;  by the age of five months the young are doing a lot of foraging on their own.  Often the family remains together into the late fall or even winter.  During cold winter weather, they typically will den together, and the following spring when the new litter arrives, the one-year-old raccoons disperse. (Thanks to Andrea Ambros for photo op.)

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Raccoons Still Active

1-6-16 raccoon tracks 118With the warm weather we’ve been experiencing, raccoons have remained active, primarily between sunset and midnight. (They tend to hole up, sometimes in groups, during very cold or stormy weather, becoming lethargic and living off of stored body fat.) Until winter weather really arrives, an early morning walk along a stream will often result in the discovery of a raccoon’s flat-footed footprints. When walking in snow that isn’t very deep (see photo) the track pattern of a raccoon is very distinct – with diagonal sets of paired tracks, one hind foot (lower track)and one front (upper track). When the snow is deep, raccoons often “direct register” – place their hind foot almost exactly where their front foot was placed, so that it is no longer a trail of paired tracks, but single tracks, which are more easily confused with other mammals’ tracks.

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Juvenile Raccoons Dispersing & Adults Mating

3-27-15 raccoon tracks in snow IMG_5071When raccoons emerge from their communal (as many as 23 raccoons) winter dens, which they are doing now, the juveniles (those born last spring) disperse. Young males may travel as far as 170 miles, but usually establish their territories no further than 14 miles from their birth place. Juvenile females usually remain in their birth area, establishing a home range that either overlaps with or is included within the range of their mother. This time of year is also the peak of the breeding season for adult raccoons. Both males and females have multiple mates.

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Raccoons Quick and Adept Hunters

raccoon pond scat 134Not everyone enjoys discovering what an animal eats by dissecting its scat, but for those of us who do, the revelations can be worth the effort. One quick glance at the shape and size of the pictured scat confirmed that a raccoon had been in the vicinity and bits of crayfish exoskeleton in it indicated that the raccoon fed from the nearby pond. Further examination of the contents revealed that raccoons are fast enough to catch dragonflies – something I wouldn’t have necessarily known and most likely wouldn’t observe in the field. Who would have guessed that raccoons are quick enough or interested enough in dragonflies to catch them? (NB: Do not do as I did – do not touch or dissect raccoon scat as it can contain bacteria, ticks and Baylisascaris roundworms which can cause neurological damage.)

As an aside, I thought it might be of interest for readers to know what goes into the making of a Naturally Curious post. The following describes my morning yesterday: out for a walk, visit a pond, see scat on a big, wooden raft that has floated near shore, manage to leap onto raft to take a picture of the scat, photograph scat and then look up to see that my leap has shoved the raft away from the edge of the pond, and I’ve drifted out into the middle of said pond. Balancing the camera on the raft, I paddle, first with one hand and then with both (at one corner), trying to move this 15’ x 15’ wooden structure in the direction I want it to go. Make a little progress, but not much. Beloved chocolate lab swims up to raft, I hold onto her neck and she pulls us to shore, camera intact. And I haven’t even begun to dissect, photograph, label and write about the contents of what led me on this adventure!

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Red Fox Vixen & Raccoon Encounter

5-27-14 red fox & raccoon 197While observing the antics of a litter of red fox kits recently, I was witness to an encounter between the kits’ mother and a very large raccoon. The vixen started barking incessantly when she saw the raccoon, and slowly moved closer and closer to it until she was within 10 feet of it. After a short standoff, the raccoon lunged towards the fox, which ran a few feet away and then turned and chased the raccoon in the opposite direction. They took turns chasing each other until the fox eventually drove the raccoon away from her den and kits. While raccoons are omnivores, and a large part of their late spring diet is animals (mainly frogs, fish, crayfish and invertebrates, but also mammals, including squirrels, rabbits and young muskrats). I have never heard of raccoons preying on fox kits, but the mother fox’s behavior indicated that she was not comfortable with the raccoon being so close to her litter. (The following day I noticed that the nose of the runt of the litter had been bitten multiple times. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.)

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Raccoons Active During Warm Spell

1-21-14 raccoon tracks 049During the recent warm spell raccoons were actively roaming the woods, visiting open water and leaving signs of their presence. When cold weather arrives in the fall, raccoons search out hollow trees, logs, crevices, etc. in which to den. They become dormant, but do not hibernate. If the temperature rises above 30 degrees F. at night as it did during the last week, they become active, but now that the temperature has dropped to sub-zero temperatures at night, they have retreated back to their dens. During mild winters, raccoons remain active; during colder winters, they are usually dormant between late November and March. A winter with vacillating temperatures, such as the one we’re experiencing, has them going in and out of dormancy.

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Butterflies Obtain Nutrients From Scat

8-14-13 white admiral on raccoon scat 019Nectar from flowers and sugar from running sap (especially at Yellow-bellied Sapsucker holes) or overripe fruit provide most, but not all, of the nutrition that butterflies need. The males of some species will also drink at muddy puddles or damp earth for mineral salts and on scat or animal carcasses to get amino acids and other vital nutrients. This added nutrition is needed for them to generate spermatophores, the packets of sperm and nutrients that are transferred to the female during mating. (Photo is of a White Admiral, Limenitis arthemis arthemis, feeding on blackberry seed-laden Raccoon scat.)

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Raccoon Tracks

12-6-12 raccoon tracks IMG_0046The 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.


Raccoon Latrine

Raccoons defecate in communal sites, called latrines. Often these latrines are located on a raised, flat surface or at the base of a tree. Over time, the scat accumulates. Should you come upon a latrine, it’s best not to investigate too closely, as raccoon feces harbor roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) eggs which can be easily ingested and cause harm (serious eye disease, spinal cord or brain damage, or death) to humans. One of these roundworms can produce more than 100,000 eggs a day, and the eggs remain viable for years in the soil.