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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

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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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