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Raccoon in tree

The raccoon is a common backyard "bandit" that is easy to spot with its black facemask and bushy, ringed tail. These animals are nocturnal. (That means active at night.) They spend the nighttime hours searching for food in cities and countryside. The raccoon is very good with its front paws, using them like hands. Its scientific name, Procyon lotor, means "a washer." Raccoons often seem to wash their food in the water.

Raccoon track drawing, ©DNR
Raccoon track drawing, ©DNR

Besides their mask and bushy, ringed tail, raccoons are covered with 1-2 inch-long fur. They weigh an average of 14-24 pounds — but they can grow to 40 pounds! Their fur is a grizzled gray color or sometimes black with silver tips. Raccoon fur can range from a light brown to reddish, to a dark black color. Look for their broad head, pointed nose, and black eyes. Their ears stand straight up and are about 1 ½ inches long. Raccoons make a variety of sounds including purrs, whimpers, snarls, growls, hisses, screams, and whinnies.

Raccoon tracks are easy to spot because their paw print looks like a pair of small human hands. Each foot has five long toes with short, curved claws. The raccoon's body is round. It has short legs and flat feet that cause it to waddle. The bottoms of raccoon feet are hairless. Look for tracks near the water since they like to wade in woodland streams, prowling for food.

Look for raccoons at night, as they start moving around at sunset and then "disappear" after sunrise. You can find them all across Wisconsin, but they are less common in the northern counties. During the day, they rest on high ground or in hollow trees, rock crevices, burrows, caves, or buildings.

Raccoon inside of a tree
Raccoon inside of a tree

Nighttime means mealtime for raccoons. They are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plants and animals. Raccoons like a mixture of nuts, fruits, berries, seeds, insects, frogs, turtles, eggs, crayfish, carrion (dead meat) and garbage! They like wooded, brushy areas near water and can often be spotted wading in a pond or stream "dipping" their food in the water.

In spring and fall, they love to rest in empty nests of large birds or squirrels. Raccoons can also make their home in buildings. In the warm months, raccoons are known for their nighttime activities in neighborhoods where they tip over trash cans, and raid gardens and bird feeders looking for a bite to eat. You might catch a glimpse of one coming out of, or scurrying into a storm sewer. They can be a problem for homeowners when they move into buildings.

By November, raccoons have fattened up to build energy reserves for winter when they are inactive. They increase their weight by 120 percent! Raccoons don't hibernate, they just rest inside where it's warm. If you're lucky, you might spot a raccoon looking for food when temperatures are above freezing.

In February or early March, raccoons will breed and have a litter of an average of 4 cubs or kits. Kits are born in a hollow tree, cave, brush pile, or rock crevice in April or May. Oftentimes raccoons share a den and there may be as many as 24 animals in one tree hollow! Their young are born helpless, with black skin and yellowish to gray fur. They are born with closed eyes, weighing only a few ounces. After a few months, the kits start to make short trips from the den. Their mothers will also carry them around by the nape of their neck like a kitten. By late summer, raccoon young are more independent, but they will stay close to their mother during the first winter. The raccoon young will "move out" the next spring when they are about 13 months old and a new litter is expected. Raccoons live an average of 5 years.

Historically, the Native Americans and the European settlers hunted raccoons for food and clothing. Trappers earned money selling raccoon fur, called pelts. Today, people continue making money by trapping raccoons with traps, or they may hunt them using hound dogs. The pelts are used mostly for making different types of clothing. People also enjoy watching and photographing raccoons.

Wild animals do not make good pets! Raccoons can carry diseases like the distemper virus. If you see a wild animal acting strange, stay away and have a guardian contact a Conservation Warden.