Raccoons: wily and adaptive urban animals

Although called “dog-like” raccoons were first classified with bears, until taxonomists eventually grouped them with the ring-tailed cats.

— Barbara Julian

Their scientific name, Procyon lotor, means “dog-like washer,” and perhaps the best-known behaviour of the common raccoon is its habit of washing its food with long, sensitive, lethally-clawed fingers. Surprisingly, raccoons are reputed to live about three years in the wild, while they may live up to 20 in captivity.

It has been said the emotional intelligence of humans took a great leap forward when they began living in settled towns (when they had to learn negotiation and getting along). It has also been suggested we have since then massively overdone urbanization, and the overcrowded post-modern city now makes people stupider (dazed by noise, crowding and the mind-numbing digital devices we play with in nature-deficient high-rise boxes). Some have theorized whatever they have done to humans, cities make wildlife smarter. Raccoons would be a case in point.

Certainly the urban raccoon seems wily enough to live longer than three years, being an opportunistic scavenging omnivore with more food sources and fewer predators in town than in the wild. Its main enemy is traffic, but leafy stretches of suburbia with linked-up green spaces can make it less necessary for wildlife to cross roads. Being blessed with a curious nature and the ability to open garbage cans, urban raccoons can get access to a range of nutrients beyond the insects, shellfish and birds’ eggs natural to them.

We find raccoons all along the banks of Bowker and other creeks, as well as in tunnels, under porches and nesting in the branches of ivy-clad trees. They like to be private, but a passerby may hear unseen mothers musically vocalizing in the bushes to their young, or growling if we come too close. During mating they sometimes shriek as if to wake the dead. Scientists tell us that several North American subspecies have adapted over time to progressively more northern ranges. The first records of ’coons spotted in an urban setting come from Cincinnati in the 1920s, and they now live as far north as Alaska.

Although called “dog-like” raccoons were first classified with bears, until taxonomists eventually grouped them with the ring-tailed cats. Fossils show their earliest ancestors came from Europe and apparently crossed to North America via Asia, yet the groups preceding the present North American species seem –— based on morphological and fossil comparisons -— to have come from Central America. They are one of those species that muddle the very idea of “invasives,” having withdrawn from and re-invaded the same territories at several times over their interesting evolutionary career.

Raccoon kits are born tiny, blind and deaf, usually two to five in a litter. That early helplessness means mothers must nurture and teach the young, and the pressure to learn is an aspect of their evolved intelligence. Recent studies have shown that a raccoon can remember solutions to tasks for up to three years. Those of us who study them in our own backyards can cite many examples of their inquisitive trial-and-error behaviour.

One of their talents is the ability to get along with other species, not only with humans (who they will befriend if they are being fed and crooned to), but also with resident cats. If cats don’t challenge the bandits, the bandits will live and let live. Backyard chickens however are another matter, as this writer once discovered at the cost of a well-loved pet hen, victim of the engaging but merciless masked marauder.