Everyone knows raccoons — these little bandits are familiar to forests (their original habitats), marshes, prairies, neighborhoods, and even cities. In addition to the northern or North American raccoon, which is native to North America, there are six other species of raccoons, most of which live in the tropics.
Diet and Habitat
This highly adaptable and nocturnal mammal feasts on a variety of fare, but in their natural environment they mainly hunt near water. They use their paws and claws to grab frogs and other aquatic critters, while on land they eat mice, insects, and steal eggs. They also rely on fruit and plants, and of course…human leftovers! In the north, raccoons will gorge themselves in the spring and summer to store up body fat for the colder months ahead.
A raccoon’s most important sense is that of touch; most of the animal’s senses are in the tactile impulses of these “hyper sensitive” front paws.
During the winter, they spend much time asleep in their dens — a tree hole, fallen log, or crawl/attic space. Raccoons rely on vertical structures to climb when they feel threatened, so it’s rare to see them in the open. In the early summer, females may have up to seven cubs, which spend their first two months in the den. However, it’s usual for only half of the young to survive a full first year. But if they survive, they begin exploring the world with their mother….
While these animals were originally considered solitary creatures, there is increased evidence that raccoons engage in gender-specific social behavior. Related females will share a common area, while unrelated males live together in groups of up to four animals to protect against foreign males (and predators) during the mating season.
The increased presence of raccoons in populated areas has resulted in diverse reactions among humans — but the truth remains, serious attacks on humans or pets by non-rabid raccoons are extremely rare, and are almost always the result of the raccoon feeling threatened, or protecting its young.
The raccoon was a prominent figure in the mythology of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Tuscarora told stories of its skills at foraging; while in other tales, the raccoon was the trickster which outsmarted other animals — even coyotes and wolves. The Dakota Sioux believed the raccoon had spirit powers, since its mask resembled the black-and-white facial paintings used during their rituals to connect to spirit beings. The Aztecs linked the raccoon’s supernatural abilities especially to the females, whose commitment to their young was associated with the role of wise women in their society.
Petroglyphs depicting raccoons span across the continental United States: engraved raccoon tracks have been found in Lewis Canyon, Texas; at the Crow Hollow petroglyph site in Grayson County, Kentucky; and in river drainages near Tularosa, New Mexico and in San Francisco, California. A detailed quartz figurine — the Ohio Mound Builders’ Stone Pipe — was found near the Scioto River. The meaning of Raccoon Priests Gorget, featuring a stylized carving of a raccoon found at the Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, remains unknown.
Raccoons are little smarties! Highly intelligent, studies from the ’60s to today show that they can remember the solutions to tasks — as well as differentiate between symbols — for up to three years. (Longer than me.) Raccoons have also been tested on opening complex locks with great success.
The word “raccoon” comes from the native Powhatan term. It was originally recorded in the Virginia Colony, on Captain John Smith’s list of Powhatan words as aroughcun, and in the records of William Strachey as arathkone. It also hails from the Proto-Algonquian root *ahrah-koon-em, meaning “[the] one who rubs, scrubs and scratches with its hands.”
Spanish colonists adopted the Spanish word mapache from the Aztecs — Nahuatl mapachitli, meaning “[the] one who takes everything in its hands.” In many languages, from German to Italian, the raccoon is named for its characteristic dousing behavior, in addition to that language’s term for bear.