By GSWA Volunteer, Jim Northrop
At age 14, I was living in a suburb of Rochester, New York. A friendly neighbor took an interest in me and in another boy on our street. One day the neighbor asked our parents if he could take us raccoon hunting. He had grown up in the Finger Lakes region and had experience at “coon” hunting. He wanted to introduce the sport to us, he told our parents, and they agreed.
The neighbor told us we needed sturdy waterproof boots, a warm jacket and a flashlight. That surprised us because it told us this would be a nighttime hike. Our neighbor, Mr. Johnson, said he would meet us at 6:00 p.m. on the appointed day, and that we would drive down to an area outside Naples, New York, about 45 minutes south. We would begin our hunt at a wooded area nearby, where Mr. Johnson had successfully hunted raccoons a few times before.
We were excited by this adventurous plan, even though we knew almost nothing about raccoons. We did know from our comic books that the raccoon was distinguished by a black mask worn across its eyes, suggesting that there might be some criminal intent lurking. Mr. Johnson sensed our raccoon ignorance, and suggested right at the start of our ride to Naples, that he would “fill us in” on the life of raccoons.
My friend Tommy had the first question for Mr. Johnson. Tommy wondered how big raccoons can become. Mr. Johnson said adult raccoons may be anywhere from 24 to 40 inches in length (including 8 – 12 inches for the tail) and weigh 14 to 40 pounds, with males being larger than females. He noted that raccoons are stocky with short front legs and long back legs.
Tommy and I both wondered what to look for in scouting for a raccoon. Mr. Johnson told us that their fur was long and dense, a grizzled salt and pepper that varies from grayish brown tipped with black above, to light gray below. The raccoon is easily identified by its black face mask and ringed tail, he continued. The mask helps reduce glare, while aiding in camouflage. (It reminded Tommy and me of the streak of black paint under each eye of a professional football or baseball player —- again to reduce glare.)
The tail usually has 5 to 7 complete dark rings, Mr. Johnson told us, alternating with broader brown or gray rings, that completely encircle the tail and end in a dark tip. The tail is used for fat storage (of particular importance in the winter), balance when climbing, and as a back brace when sitting up like a little teddy bear.
Tommy and I both wondered about raccoon habitat. Mr. Johnson thought that raccoons were found across most of North America, inhabiting wetlands, plains and, primarily, forests. However, he noted, as civilization moves in on them and destroys their habitats, raccoons adapt quite well to living in urban areas. He did think that bottomland hardwoods provide good vertical opportunities for their climbing, and for feeding on insects, and aquatic animal life. Fields and open areas yield fruit, berries, insects and occasional small mammals and reptiles. Mr. Johnson said that raccoons also liked frogs, crayfish, turtles and insects that live in the water.
I was wondering how raccoons shelter themselves. Mr. Johnson said raccoons do not construct their own den sites, but rely on natural processes or the work of other animals. Raccoons usually den in hollow trees, rock crevices and ground dens. Ground dens and cavity trees are used for both shelter and escape, but den trees are preferred for raising the young, he said. Dens are usually located just below or within the tree canopy. Suitable ground dens include abandoned buildings, car bodies, wood or brush piles, hay stacks, rock crevices, and the abandoned dens, or the abandoned burrows of badgers, beavers, coyotes, woodchucks or foxes. Mr. Johnson noted that a raccoon may use several dens within its home range.
A short while later, Mr. Johnson brought up “raccoon family living.” Adult males, he said, tend to be solitary, but family groups are quite social and will feed and den together well into the fall. As family units disband toward winter, raccoons become increasingly solitary, but they will use communal or group dens during winter storms. “Interestingly,” said Mr. Johnson, “raccoons pair off only to mate and do not form long-term bonds. Also, the males do not share in the rearing of the young.”
Tommy wondered if raccoons have any special features, unknown to other animals. “I’m glad you asked,” said Mr. Johnson. “Raccoons are extremely agile climbers, and descend trees head-first. They have nimble feet, but they are flat-footed like humans and bears, and are relatively slow runners. Because the raccoon’s front toes can be opened wide, the forepaws can be used skillfully to handle food and other objects. Using their sensitive hand-like front paws, Mr. Johnson continued, they can catch fish and small prey, and bring food to their mouths and hold it while they eat. With these tiny “hands,” the raccoon can also open locks, unlatch bird feeders and open up garbage cans.”
Mr. Johnson smiled and noted that raccoons are inquisitive and seldom pass up the opportunity to investigate an interesting smell or crevice. “They will probe a crack,” he said, “with their front feet and pull anything of interest from its hole for closer inspection.
“Also,” continued Mr. Johnson, “raccoons can drop from a tree, unharmed, 35 to 40 feet. They are excellent swimmers. If cornered, raccoons are ferocious fighters and can kill a dog. Raccoons are also known for their excellent night vision and keen sense of hearing.”
Mr. Johnson also told us that raccoons do not hibernate. They go through a period of decreasing activity in the winter, but it is not technically hibernation. Winter also coincides with their mating season, he said. And, the raccoon is one of the most vocal of night animals, he told us. During mating season, raccoons will sometimes scream, mew, growl and whistle.
Mr. Johnson slowed the car and turned onto a dirt road. “Here we are,” he said. We were on the edge of a corn field, a few steps from a wooded area. We climbed out of the car, while Mr. Johnson checked and loaded his rifle, and we followed him down a trail into the woods.
This was a little scary because of a hoot owl in a nearby tree. But, we pushed ahead. After about half an hour, Mr. Johnson stopped and beamed his flashlight into the trees. Nothing happened for a few moments, and then we saw two red circles staring back at us from a tree limb many feet above. Mr. Johnson aimed his rifle. “That’s a coon,” he said. But seconds later the red eyes disappeared, and Mr. Johnson lowered his rifle.
We hiked for about 30 more minutes, frequently aiming the beam of our flashlights into the tree branches above us. There were several raccoons sighted, but they were quick to slip into the tree canopy and disappear.
Suddenly, Tommy’s flashlight beam spotted two red eyes on a limb to our left. Mr. Johnson handed the rifle to me and told me to “bag the trophy.” It was so sudden. I aimed and fired. The red eyes immediately disappeared.
Well, we search and searched, but never found the carcass of a raccoon. I confessed in the car as we drove home that I had never fired a gun before. But, I was also thinking and asking myself . . . “how could I have been so heartless as to try killing such an amazing animal?”