Adult raccoons are stocky animals weighing from 2 to 10 kilograms (6-7 on average) and measuring between 2 and 3 feet (18-26 inches body length plus 9-12 inches tail length). Most people identify raccoons by their distinctive black patches around the eyes that resemble a mask, often calling them the “masked bandits.” Their pointed snout, clawed fingers and feet, and black-ringed tail are also signs that make raccoons easily recognizable. Their fur color ranges from gray to light brown. The dexterous, human-like hands and their acute sense of touch make raccoons very skillful at numerous tasks, such as unlocking doors and windows, rummaging through garbage cans, and grasping and manipulating many other items.
Raccoons are omnivorous and will eat pretty much anything they find, especially aquatic creatures such as clams, snails, frogs, and fish. Although hunting is not one of their best abilities, they can easily catch young squirrels, mice, rats, and gophers. They are particularly fond of plant foods such as berries, corn, nuts, and grain, and they will also eat insects, dead animals, waterfowl, and the eggs and young of birds nesting on the ground. In some regions, the quantity of plant food consumed by raccoons is higher than animal prey. In urban environments, their diet also includes garbage and other foods.
In wooded areas, raccoons prefer to den in hollow trees that they use for shelter and raising their young. Common den sites include rock crevices, ground burrows made by other animals and abandoned, duck nest boxes, as well as chimneys, attics, crawlspaces, and even abandoned cars. Unless they have young or the temperature is too low, dens are left after a few days following no specific pattern. Several raccoons may den in the same place during winter storms.
Raccoons are solitary animals, but they pair up during breeding season, which can last from early January until June, but most mating happens in March-April. Females generally have no more than one litter per year, giving birth to an average of 4 kits after a 65-day gestation period. The young are helpless for the first few weeks of their life and will only leave the den after they learn to walk and climb, which is around 7-8 weeks of age. At three months of age, kits are able to accompany their mother in search for food and be on their own for several nights before returning to the nest. The young will spend the winter near the initial den site of their mother and search for their own during the following spring.
Raccoons live longest in captivity, where they have been reported to reach 13 years of age. In the wild, however, they seldom make it past 2-3 years. Encounters with cars and hunters, as well as disease and predation, are the main causes of death. Their predators include coyotes, bobcats, owls, and domestic dogs.
Raccoons can cause significant damage in both rural and urban environments:
Habitat Modification. Raccoons’ search for food sources and den sites may lead them to your home, vegetable garden, or poultry coop. One of the most effective ways of preventing raccoons from trespassing on your property is to modify the habitat and make your house unattractive to them. You can do this by: securing garbage in tight-fitting trash cans, feeding pets inside the house instead of outside, picking up falling fruit and seeds spilled by birds at the bird feeder, removing woodpiles and other materials that could serve as a denning site, enclosing poultry in secure dens outside the house, protecting vegetables and trees by installing metal barriers, and disrupting any interaction with raccoons, especially feeding.
Exclusion. This is probably the best method of eliminating den sites and preventing the animals’ access inside your house. You can do this by covering chimneys with tightly secured caps, screening all open spaces beneath porches, decks, and sheds with galvanized hardwire mesh, and electrifying fences around trees, orchards, and vegetable gardens to discourage climbing.
Trapping. This method is better left to a professional wildlife operator who has the proper equipment and knowledge to handle aggressive raccoons (especially mothers nursing their young). Trapping and relocating animals several miles away may present itself as an effective solution, but raccoons will typically try to return to their initial territories. A special permit is required for trapping and transporting wild animals in most regions.
There is no one method of discouraging raccoons to visit your property. In some communities where raccoon populations are high, permanent exclusion can only be obtained with the help of pest control professionals or through a sustained community effort to educate the public about urban raccoon problems.
In order to limit encounters with raccoons and prevent damage to the house and garden, make sure you: