One type of wildlife almost everyone can identify is the raccoon, with its striking black face mask and striped, bushy tail. Raccoons are abundant and widespread throughout North America, from Panama to Canada, except the Arctic, deserts, and very high elevations. Their preferred habitat is moist woodlands, but they will live anywhere where there is access to water. Native to North America, the raccoon has also been introduced in parts of Europe and Asia (see map). Raccoons are highly adaptable and have adapted to humans to the extent that they may be more successful in suburban and urban settings than in the wild. In suburban habitats, there can be as many as 180 raccoons per square mile! In contrast, in wilderness environments each raccoon may have a territory of 10-16 acres.
The main reason that raccoons are so adaptable and able to flourish in so many environments from tropical forests to cities is their ability to eat almost anything. True omnivores, raccoons will eat fruits, roots and tubers, nuts, acorns, grains, insects, frogs, crayfish, eggs, nestling birds, small mammals, fish, worms, carrion, and human garbage. With excellent night vision and hearing, raccoons are primarily nocturnal, but will vary their schedule depending on the availability of food and water. Their diet also varies seasonally according to what is available, such as fruits in the summer, crayfish, eggs, and insects in the spring, and acorns in the fall.
Raccoons range in size from 18"-28" in length (including 8-12" of tail) and from 7-20 pounds in weight, depending on age and sex (males are up to 30% larger than females). They average about 13 pounds. They have five toes on both front and hind paws, and the front paws are almost hand-like and very dextrous, which helps them in collecting food. They can open the latches on garbage cans, coolers, and other man-made food containers and are highly intelligent.
The most well-known raccoon behavior is dousing or "washing" their food. In the wild they dabble in the water to catch crayfish and other food, but don't bring other food to water; however, in captivity they may dunk their food into their water. This behavior gives them their scientific name (Procyon lotor; lotor means "washer" in Latin) as well as their common name in many languages.
Raccoons prefer to build dens in hollow trees, but will also use woodchuck, fox, badger, or skunk burrows, muskrat lodges, caves, mines, brush piles, abandoned buildings, barns, garages, rain sewers, or houses. When they occupy a house they can cause considerable damage. Raccoons only breed once a year, mating in late winter through early spring (January through April). Males and females don't interact after mating. Gestation lasts about 65 days and a litter of 2-5 is typical. Young raccoons, known as kits, are born blind and helpless, but can walk, run, and climb by the age of 7 weeks, and are weaned and beginning to forage for themselves by about 16 weeks. They may remain in a family group with their mother for several months. Adult raccoons are solitary or form loose social groups. They have been known to live up to 21 years in captivity, but in the wild 5 years is more typical.
The raccoon's known predators include coyotes, wolves, large hawks and owls, bobcats, and mountain lions. They are also hunted and trapped by humans and often struck by vehicles. They can carry rabies and canine distemper, as well as other diseases and parasites, some of them communicable to humans and domestic animals. Raccoons are one of the most frequent nuisance animals reported by wildlife agencies in urban and suburban areas of the United States, and they also sometimes cause damage to agriculture.