A raccoon primer for the city dweller copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen.
All rights reserved.
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
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
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)
Sieber, O.J. (1984)Vocal Communication in Raccoons (Procyon lotor). Behaviour, 90, No. 1/3,
Page, L. K., Gehrt, S.D., Robinson, N.P. (2008) Land-Use Effects on Prevalence of Raccoon
Roundworm (Baylisascaris Procyonis). Journal of Wildlife Diseases 44(3):594-599.
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|"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
FWS NE Region Bill Buchanan
|Arrange a presentation on
conservation or humane
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813
Website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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