Procyn lotor


Raccoon, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in June 2013.

Ah, the raccoon! Cute and cuddly, right? Not if you're a bird, or a turtle or even a nesting alligator. He's a major threat to you, and there's not a lot that will stop him from coming after you and your offspring.

Raccoons, Procyn lotor, are anywhere and everywhere there are trees and a source of water — in town, in the 'burbs and in the wilds. While expanding development and agriculture have reduced the numbers of other species, they've actually boosted the raccoon population by providing more sources of food and eliminating predators. I mean when was the last time you saw a Florida panther, a red wolf or an adult alligator in your backyard? Occasionally a dog will get one, or a bobcat or an owl, but generally speaking, about the only thing they have to fear is crossing the street. In fact, according to the University of Florida, it's likely that more raccoons are killed by cars and trucks than by all natural predators put together.

The species of raccoon native to Florida — the northern raccoon — is the same one found in all 48 continguous states and parts of Canada, Mexico and Central America. There are naturalized populations in parts of Europe and Central Asia. Raccoons are found throughout Florida. They can grow to two to three feet in length, including the tail, and weigh between 10 and 30 pounds, about the size of a small or medium dog. They're brown or gray, with the familiar black-and-white mask.

But they are highly variable in the looks — there are 25 identified subspecies of raccoons, including Florida's very own Key vaca, found in the middle Keys.

Raccoons are omnivores. Their menu includes fruits, vegetation, bird eggs, turtle eggs (we're guessing the raccoon in the bottom right photo might be digging for eggs), crabs, crayfish, frogs and other small animals and garbage. Oh and carrion, too. They'll raid pet bowls, bird feeders and insufficiently secured garbage cans.

Some raccoon basics: males are called boars; females are sows; and the kids are called kits. They are excellent swimmers but are not particularly fleet afoot, hitting a maximum of about 15 mph — a brisk walking pace for a human.

Raccoons are extremely adaptable, able to survive in the deserts of the southwest and in tropical forests. They get along well even in cities, which, if you think about it, shouldn't be all the surprising. There are no predators (or very few), hunting and trapping is limited if it exists at all and there's plenty of food in the form of garbage.

In the wild, they'll nest in tree cavities near the ground or high up in the canopy. In more urban settings, they'll find shelter in a pile of debris or rocks, culverts, drain pipes, decks, attics, crawl spaces and abandoned burrows of other animals. They are nocturnal animals, becoming active in the evening and returing to their dens in the morning. Their trademark black facemask is believed to have developed as a way of reducing glare, much the way athletes use eye black. In suburban areas, however, they can be more active during the day, when people tend to be at work and dogs aren't roaming the backyards. They also have the annoying habit of pooping on swimming pool steps — in natural settings, they'll poop in shallow water to hide their droppings from other animals.

They are somewhat territorial, males more than females but they will tolerate the presence of others. Each will have a home range of one to three square miles. But in an area where food is plentiful, there can be as many as 100 raccoons per square mile.

We've seen various estimates of the average lifespan of raccoons, but regardless of the number, it ain't long. Some say two or three years, some some say five.

They become sexually mature at about 10 to 12 months, with females rearing the young totally. Up north, mating season begins in January and peaks in February. Down our way, the season begins later and continues into summer. Litters range from one to eight, but typically two to five. Gestation lasts about two months, but can vary by a week or so either way. Most females will have one litter per year.

Raccoon young are born blind, begin walking at seven weeks; mom begins weaning them as soon as they leave the nest and most are completely weaned by 16 weeks. The offspring will stay with mom for as long as 10 months.

The great Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, the creator of the binomial system of naming living things, first classified the raccoon as a member of the bear family, calling it Ursus cauda elongate, or long-tailed bear. It was later changed to Ursus lotor, meaning washer bear, stemming from the observation of raccoons "washing' food. In 1780, it became Procyn lotor, meaning pre-dog washer. Raccoons are members of Procyonidae.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.