By Diana Dunn
A rattling garbage can breaks the silence of the still summer night. The veil of darkness helps this masked looter scavenge for small morsels that were hastily discarded into the trash bin. Its only trace is a series of tiny, hand-like paw prints. The raccoon is one of our most stealthy and curious watershed neighbors.
Summer time is demanding for these city slicker critters. Female raccoons spend the warm nights rummaging around, hoping to find a backyard buffet to feed the newborn kits she safely tucked away in a nearby crawl space. As hollow trees and logs have become scarce in the urban environment, raccoons have become increasing creative with their dwellings. A female raccoon and her one to seven young kits can most typically be found snuggling in chimneys, attics, under porches, and even in storm drains!
Born blind and deaf, kits are heavily dependent on their mothers the first few weeks of their lives. Once the young raccoons are approximately two months old they are allowed to explore the great outdoors. They spend this time becoming acquainted with the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. They learn how to be opportunistic feeders, like their mother, and by four months the adolescent raccoons must find their own meals. However, the kits are not ready to leave mother’s side just yet. The kits will continue living with their mother and numerous siblings throughout their first winter, and will not venture out on their own until spring.
When the offspring finally leave their childhood den they go on to establish territories where they can easily grab a meal on the go. Raccoons are especially adept at using their front paws, which look strikingly similar to hands. Their amazing manual dexterity enable raccoons to effortlessly climb, swim, turn stones, catch small animals, and even manipulate objects like locks and lids! Raccoons do not have true opposable thumbs, but the shape of their paw makes them excellent at grasping.
Raccoons will snatch anything they can get their masterful paws on. These endearing bandits are technically categorized as carnivores, and have the large canines to prove it. However, raccoons are also equipped with molars to grind food, like nuts or berries. Most frequently, raccoons are generalist feeders, and enjoy munching on insects, frogs, crayfish, acorns, garbage, and garden fruits and vegetables.
Before they gorge themselves, raccoons have the bad habit of playing with their food. It was believed that raccoons liked to wash their food before consuming it; however, after closer examination raccoons seem to manipulate objects in the same manner even when they don’t have access to a creek or pond. Raccoons might be mimicking the motions associated with how they would naturally acquire food in more wild and rugged settings.
Either way, these striped critters are quite fun to watch from a distance (beware that they can be feisty and wild up close)– as long as they’re not feasting on last night’s dinner scraps in your backyard trash bin!