Wilderness Underfoot: The masked bandit

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116604086128237.jpg’, ”, ‘The raccoon – Procyon lotor is widespread from southern Canada to the Panama Canal, with the exception of the upper Rockies and parts of the desert Southwest. The roots of the raccoon family can be traced all the way back to the Oligocene Period (37 million years ago). Dog-like or bear-like ancestors of raccoons were mostly carnivorous, but they eventually evolved molars for crushing and grinding, allowing them to adapt to a more varied diet. They also evolved exceptional dexterity in their forelimbs. Raccoons first arose in Central America, and by the early Ice Ages (2.5 million years ago), they had spread across much of North America.’);

With its distinctive mask and banded tail, the raccoon is easy

to identify.

If you’ve ever run into one of these animals, chances are it was at night, and the creature was poking around a garbage can or a dog dish. Raccoons are most at home in timbered wetlands, and on the edges of streams, rivers and lakes, but they have readily adapted to human habitats. As nocturnal creatures, they’re rarely seen in the daytime.

In the wild, the raccoon prefers a source of water within a short walking distance of its den. But in urban areas, it will make do with water from a dog dish, a running hose or a backyard pond. As an opportunistic feeder, the wild raccoon preys on crayfish, fish, amphibians, rodents, cottontails, birds and bird eggs. It also scavenges on carrion. It fills out its diet with berries, seeds and nuts, and in agricultural areas, it happily consumes crops such as corn. In urban areas, the raccoon will eat any food it finds in garbage cans, pet dishes and gardens.

It is widely believed that the raccoon washes its food, but this is not entirely true. It appears that dunking its food in water may be something of a compulsive behavior that emerged from the raccoon’s style of poking around at the water’s edge for prey. This animal has amazing dexterity and sense of touch in its fingers, with thumbs that are nearly opposable. To gather creatures such as salamanders, crayfish or turtles, it reaches into the water, feeling around the mud and plants.

Whether you regard the raccoon with affection or contempt may depend on whether you’ve ever been pestered by one. Often referred to as a masked bandit, the raccoon is known for its clever tactics and amazing feats of burglary. It will dig under fences, climb over obstacles, and actually open latches to get at a source of food or a comfy nesting location. It is known to nest in barns, garages and attics. Unfortunately, a raccoon can create a lot of damage, not to mention waste, if allowed to remain on your property.

It is not a good idea to feed or attract raccoons. They have the potential of transmitting diseases such as Baylisascaris procyonis (fecal roundworm) and rabies to humans and pets. They can also transmit canine distemper to cats and dogs.

From the Dec. 13-19, 2006, issue

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