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News Article

Living in Harmony with Raccoons

Third in a six part series: Introduction, Skunks, raccoons, coyotes, squirrels and opossums

Raccoons are such furry bundles of cuteness, it's hard not to want them in your garden. That is until you get to know just how much havoc they can create. I have a few raccoons that cruise my garden. They eat oranges and fool around in the fountain. They used to get into my bird feeder. They pulled the feeder off the branch, opened it up and ate the entire seed cylinder. So, I padlocked the feeder to the tree branch. I thought I was so clever and for awhile, this worked very well. Unfortunately, I left the key attached to the lock and the raccoons took the key; no idea what they did with it. I’ve had a lot of fun, amusing and beautiful experiences with raccoons; all from a safe distance. These animals may be cute, but they can and will be very aggressive in defense of themselves and young. Raccoons are also quick; they can run up to 15 miles an hour but prefer a leisurely rolling stroll. Coyotes are sometimes blamed for damage done by a raccoon. A raccoon can kill a cat, a small dog and they will do considerable damage to a human they consider a threat. They are very clever and live their lives strategically aligned to avoid humans while taking full advantage of what humans provide. Raccoons are very well-adapted to living in the South Bay urban environment.

Raccoons have learned a lot about living around people so let’s learn something about them. Raccoons are nocturnal and rarely seen during the day. On their nightly road trips through the South Bay they seek out water; a basic for survival, and they are rather famous for dunking their food before eating. They aren’t actually washing; they have very sensitive front paws and they amplify their sense of touch through dousing their food in water. Although they have fine vision, they learn about what’s in their paws by touch not sight. When you watch a raccoon eat, they don’t look at the food they rub it with their paws. The front paws have five fingers surrounded by a thin layer of callus for protection. They’re attracted to fountains, ponds and water dishes left outside. They live in the Madrona Marsh Preserve and sump because there is water, reliable food and safe shelter.

Second to water for survival is food. They are climbers and readily enjoy tree fruit and whatever is growing in your garden; except tomatoes. Raccoons don’t eat tomatoes, they might squish them but they don’t eat them. The generally understood reason is that tomatoes are too acidic for their taste. When raccoons climb trees to munch your fruit they can turn their back legs 180 degrees to better grip the tree and also for braking when descending. In the wilds of the Preserve, open spaces and gardens raccoons dine on worms, insects and plant material. They will also eat rats, mice, other small mammals, crayfish, small reptiles, amphibians, fish, bird eggs and some birds. Raccoons are well known for raiding dumpsters and trash bins for leftover food. You can see why they have survived so long. The raccoon is designed to be perfectly omnivorous, they will eat almost anything. They also have natural intelligence which gives this critter a big advantage for survival in different ecological habitats. When food is scarce they will sleep in their den for extended periods. They don’t hibernate but they will minimize their activity to save energy.

Raccoons seek safe shelter for sleeping all day and when raising young. They consider safe shelter to be areas where they are well hidden. They shelter under dense bushes, sheds, decks, porches, houses in attics and tree hollows.

Female and male raccoons live separately in small groups of up to four individuals. Mating season occurs from January–Mid-March; gestation time is 63-65 days. Raccoons give birth to 1-7 babies in early summer. Mothers raise their kits alone or near other females if they feel the need for protection. The babies open their eyes around 3 weeks of age, start eating solid food around 7 weeks of age. By 2 months of age, they are traveling with their mother at night. Young raccoons are independent at 12-14 months of age. They live for 2-3 years in the wild. I once watched a wild mother raccoon nurse her 3 small kits on my porch. As each kit finished nursing, mom casually reached out, grabbed them and washed their face. I felt very privileged to watch this from safely inside my house.

Raccoons communicate with each other. They hiss, whistle, scream, growl and snarl with 200 variations and combinations of these sounds. Babies chirp, whine and chatter when they are hungry or cold.

Fun Facts and About Raccoons

How to keep them out of your garden is tricky but worth the effort as they can cause a lot of damage. They will avoid lighted areas at night so garden lights help. Tightly cover access under your house and attics. You can scare them away by making yourself large, waving your arms, clapping your hands and yelling. If that doesn’t work throw something in the raccoon’s general direction. When threatened a raccoon will sometimes freeze and stare waiting to see what will happen next; if something not to their liking happens, they will leave. Raccoons are attracted to one thing in and around your home: FOOD. The most useful thing you can do to deter raccoons is not leave food outside or in places where they can get to discarded food. Remember that raccoons will eat small animals so don’t leave a chicken, cat or rabbit outside at night. You can also bring bird feeders inside at night or, if you prefer, padlock them to the tree branch; remember to take the key.

Next issue, Living in Harmony with Coyotes, yep it is absolutely possible.

See You on the Preserve
President, Friends of Madrona Marsh
California Naturalist


raccoon climbing tree

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