Raccoons are masked trick-or-treaters, too

  • Raccoons are the masked bandits of the backyard apt to snack on your trash or acorns. pixabay.com

  • Raccoons’ menu varies with the season, but they will likely eat just about anything they can get their paws on. pixabay.com

For the Monitor
Thursday, September 28, 2017

Later this month, some people will don masks and go skulking around at night seeking yummy things to eat, just like one of New Hampshire’s native mammals. Raccoons practice trick-or-treat all the time, or at least during much of the year.

Raccoons are common throughout New Hampshire and in most of North America. They are recognized not only by their black-masked face, but also their grayish-brown fur and ringed bushy tail.

They are well adapted for living in various habitats from forests to cities. One reason they are wide-spread is that they have a diverse diet. Their treats may consist of crayfish, insects, snails, amphibians, worms, bird eggs, and small mammals. But they also eat buds, fruits and berries, grass and especially at this time of year, acorns. Their menu varies with the season, but they will likely eat just about anything they can get their paws on.

Acorns make up 25 to 50 percent of their autumn diet because those oak seeds provide protein, carbohydrates, fat and many essential vitamins and minerals. Acorn consumption enables raccoons to build up a layer of fat which helps them survive the winter. Their body weight in the fall is twice what it is in the spring. They utilize the extra fat as their food during periods of time (up to a month) when they are dormant. They do not go into a deep hibernation like the woodchuck does, but they do decrease their metabolism so they don’t have to search for food or be out and about during the dead of winter.

When the winter temperature gets above 30 degrees, raccoons will come out and forage for food. After one of these excursions, you might see their distinctive foot prints in the snow. Their feet, both front and back, have five long toes, much like our fingers and toes.

The fingers on their front feet are extremely dexterous, enabling them to manipulate many objects. Their sense of touch, along with hearing, are their most developed senses. Their name comes from an Algonquin word, “aroughcoune,” which translates to “he who scratches with his hands.” The name was frequently mispronounced by European settlers and evolved into the word raccoon which we use today.

Their scientific name is Procyon lotor, and lotor is Latin for “washer.” It is commonly thought that raccoons use their nimble fingers to wash their food before they eat it. While they frequently dunk food items in a stream or pond before eating, the cleanliness of the food does not seem to matter to them.

In addition to scratching, digging, dunking or grasping for food, their hands also enable raccoons to get into trash cans, open latches and do other “tricks” that can put them on our list of pests. Because they are able to eat a varied diet, they can exist quite well on garbage, produce from backyard gardens or pet food left on a back doorstep. Urban raccoon populations are quite robust, providing opportunities to encounter these bandits even if you don’t live anywhere near the woods.

Their nocturnal habits make it challenging to see them. But if you hear strange growls, barks, chitters, squeals, whines or screeches at night, you may be hearing a raccoon. They have a vast repertoire of vocalizations.

During the day they will sleep in a protected den. The urban version may be a culvert, under a porch or even in a chimney. In more natural settings, they may rest in the crotch of a tree or a rock crevice. The dens they use for raising young or spending the winter are usually in a hollow tree.

Raccoons also use their skillful hands for climbing. Look for a tree cavity that is at least 10 feet high and six to eight inches in diameter. Scratch marks on the bark, below the hole are an indication that raccoons may be using it for a den. Finding bits of fur around the opening is also a telltale sign of their activity. When they need to descend from the hole, their back feet can rotate 180 degrees which enables them to scamper down, head first.

So, whether you consider raccoons a marauding pest or a well-adapted native, they use some pretty clever tricks to access their treats and I find that quite fascinating.