Nature’s masked marauder

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116118961423240.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘It would appear the raccoon’s mask is intended to hide his identity when he gets into mischief.’);

The other night as I drove into my driveway, the beams of the headlights were reflected by the surprised eyes of an animal sitting on my front porch. After blowing the horn of my car a few times, the animal with a black mask across its eyes, and a bushy, ringed tail, leisurely ambled off the porch and made for the woods in the rear of my house. It was a raccoon, one of the most common wild (frequently not so wild) mammals in this area, though many people don’t have the opportunity to see one because of its nocturnal habits.

Raccoons are frequently simply called coons and are widely distributed over the United States, occurring also in Canada and south of the U.S. border. Raccoons are what is termed omnivorous feeders in that they will eat almost any type of food, including frogs, fish, birds, insects, crustaceans, eggs, berries, fish, acorns, garbage, corn and melons of all types. They are essentially opportunists, and what they devour depends on what is readily available.

Many believe raccoons always wash their food before eating, and there is some truth in that story. If water is available, most will wash their food, and some have been known to actually refuse food when water is not at hand. But this is not an ironclad rule. Frequently, the masked bandit will encounter food some distance from water and will eat it, though he may not be too happy about it. The reason for the animal’s fastidious habit is not known. To me, this does not indicate raccoon preventive medicine as some of the water used in washing is probably more contaminated than the food. Frogs, crayfish and other aquatic tidbits caught in the water are scrubbed just as energetically as other types of food.

Farmers and gardeners generally have a dislike for raccoons as they relish corn and other crops, and have been known to raid chicken houses from time to time. They have been accused of reducing the fish and edible turtle populations of some bodies of water, but I believe they are of little importance in that respect. Others are not in love with these animals when they set up housekeeping close to one’s dwelling. My son, who lives in Rockford, has had a family of coons living under the deck of his house for more than a year, and they frequently disturb the household with their frolicking about during the night.

The raccoons’ greatest value lies in their fur, with thousands of people hunting and trapping them for profit and recreation. The demand for raccoon skins has varied widely over the past decades, but it still is among the most important in the fur industry. The greatest demand for the varmint’s hide came during the middle ’50s when it seemed every boy had to have a coonskin cap like their hero Davy Crockett always wore.

Seventy or so years ago, no college man’s wardrobe was complete without a raccoon skin coat—nightmarish in appearance, but reasonably efficient in protecting the wearer from the elements. Recently, the director of conservation in a Midwestern state (not Illinois) wished publicly for a return in the popularity of the raccoon coat. The reason he gave for this desire was that since the coats went out of style, raccoon hunting and trapping had diminished to the point where the animals were doing considerable damage to crops.

In some parts of the country, a 15-pound mature raccoon furnishes a delicious meal when parboiled and then fried. The “sport” of coon hunting with the aid of a pack of hounds was once very popular in rural areas of southern states, but this activity has declined in recent years.

Raccoons hide by day and nest in hollow trees, rock piles, burrows in the ground, or under your deck or front porch. A few people keep them as pets because of their inherent curiosity that compels them to examine carefully any new object that comes their way. However, because of their natural propensity for harboring the deadly rabies virus, the practice of maintaining one as a pet is certainly not recommended.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Oct. 18-24, 2006, issue

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