Spring is in the air and the patter of little raccoon feet will soon be underfoot in NYC parks. With the prospect of the new arrivals and with the Health Department’s efforts underway to vaccinate raccoons against rabies in Riverside Park, Central Park and Morningside Park, it might be opportune to review some basics on raccoon behavior.
With all that snow still on the ground raccoons are not hibernating despite popular belief. Exceptionally cold weather may keep them in their dens for prolonged periods but they will continue to forage for food during the winter. Where food is in short supply they exist on stored fat from the previous fall and summer. Raccoons may lose over half their body weight over a winter and many raccoons will not survive a harsh or long cold season, especially the youngest. They are nocturnal animals and you can expect to see a raccoon anytime from sundown to sun up with the occasional mother raccoon foraging for her young in daylight hours.
Breeding season for raccoons will vary depending on location but is generally brought on by longer days and warming temperatures. In New York State breeding season peaks in late January to February with cubs being born in the months of March through May. The gestation period for a raccoon is about 2 months. Raccoon litters average 3-5 cubs or kits
Raccoons are popularly known for their inquisitive and affable nature. Studies on rabid raccoons often note that the animals display little or no symptoms. Although, raccoons like most animals, will be aggressive when cornered or attacked. The raccoon is also well known for its dexterity with skilled hand movements. It is now known that raccoons do not wash their food to clean it but to “enjoy” handling it.
A study by Sieber documented communication between mother and young. Maternal vocalizations called “chitters” are directed at the cubs, who respond by whistling. Chitters are employed to draw attention to food or to alert the cubs to her approach. Whistling is more common when cubs are nestlings and heard less as they are more and more able to navigate on their own. While a mother may chitter to her cubs to follow her out and about the cubs will usually follow quietly. Sieber’s study was significant in finding that chitters and whistles are unique to individuals. Basically, mother and young recognize each other’s own communiqués.
Raccoons are weaned between the end of their second month through their fourth month. Cubs stay with their mother until at least nine months of age and usually will den with her for their first winter. Male raccoons do not nest with mothers or their cubs and can actually be a danger to their own young.
In urban areas, like New York City, food for an opportunist like the raccoon is plentiful. Our garbage offers a bounty for the animals. Raccoons are picky eaters if circumstances allow. Scientific articles on the species note the animals in the wild seem to prefer berries, nuts, seeds along with crayfish and crabs. The NYS DEC reports that raccoons target corn and watermelon on farmlands. Anecdotal reports of raccoons dining on pet food are common. So far there is little information as to what is the preferred “trash” diet of the urban raccoon.
Studies on the home range of a city raccoon have found they are more likely to be more heavily concentrated in urban areas as opposed to rural or forest areas due to the wealth of food humans leave behind. Other studies on how wildlife and free roaming cats and dogs use forest, parkland and cities show that our garbage cans are more attractive than the forest interior when it comes to “hunting” for food. Keeping garbage inaccessible to raccoons will limit their access to this plentiful urban resource and help to contain raccoon populations.
Studies show that raccoons main predator is man (non-human predators include bobcats, red foxes, coyotes, owls and the very occasional alligator). The animals are hunted for food, sport and fur.
Hunters are usually the most successful in killing younger raccoons. Older raccoons develop avoidance patterns of behavior and will evade hunter and “coon” dog through streams and tree tops. “Treeing” a raccoon is isolating the animal in a tree from which it cannot escape. Hunting dogs that perfect this technique are valued by hunters. Raccoons benefit from hunters by eating wounded birds that hunters have shot down and not collected as well as eating muskrats caught in hunter’s traps.
The raccoon’s opportunist nature is not limited to dinner opportunities. When it comes to shelter the animals will avail themselves of human structures if possible. It is strongly suggested to avoid any interaction with them. Raccoons are protected by law in New York State. They may not be kept as pets and may not be hunted or trapped without a license. Contacting a licensed Nuisance Wildlife Control person to aid in removing the animals from private property is highly advised.
Humane assistance in relocation respects wildlife. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators can help in caring for raccoons in need of assistance. Contact your local DEC regional office for more information and tips on raccoon behavior and encounters (for all five boroughs of NYC call the DEC’s Long Island City office at (718) 482-4922)
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