Behind the bandit mask

Post by Brett Peto

You know them as raccoons (Procyon lotor). Though maybe trash pandas is more your style, a phrase that’s taken off since it first appeared on Reddit in 2014. (I can’t help but note the Rocket City Trash Pandas, a Minor League Baseball team, plays ball in Madison, Alabama). Or you could even know them as washing-bears, an old Germanic nickname bestowed on the species “because they have a habit of rinsing and softening their food in water before they eat it.” This moniker actually has a connection to the legendary naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, who created the Latin-based binomial nomenclature system and originally labeled the raccoon as Ursus lotor (“washer bear”). Whatever you call them, raccoons are commonly found in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

It’s easy to spot one, of course, by its bandit mask: the patches of black fur bending below each of its eyes. This mask is nothing short of iconic, but it’s likely an icon with a purpose: “one hypothesis for the dark fur is that it may help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.” There’s more to know, though, about these medium-sized mammals beyond face value—or just one feature of their faces.

A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.

On average, North American raccoons weigh between 14 and 23 pounds and grow to lengths of 24 to 38 inches. In the wild, their average life expectancy is two to three years; few live beyond six years. Moist, deciduous woodlands are their most traditional habitat, where they den in tree cavities or burrows. But since they’re so incredibly adaptable, raccoons can make their homes in farmlands, grasslands, barns, abandoned buildings, and suburban and urban areas. They even use storm sewers as hidden highways, traveling from dens just outside the city limits for a nocturnal buffet.

And buffet is right. As omnivores, raccoons eat fruits, insects, nuts, berries, frogs, eggs, rodents, plants, and yes, human food. Curiously, that old nickname above, washing-bear, comes from a behavior observed in captive raccoons called dousing. Dousing is when a raccoon dunks its food in water before eating it. Originally, scientists thought raccoons do this to wash their food. But they found raccoons douse dirty and clean food equally, so the hypothesis shifted. Maybe they do it to increase the sensitivity of their already dexterous front paws? That may still be part of it, but it looks like dousing is a fixed action pattern—essentially, an instinctual behavior.

But why do only captive raccoons douse, not wild raccoons? Well, a fixed action pattern might explain it, actually. Raccoons in the wild have to search for food, sometimes in the water, whereas captive raccoons are given food by their caregivers. Indeed, researchers found that captive raccoons douse more often when there’s sand visible below the water’s surface, mimicking a shallow stream bed. Captive raccoons don’t need to hunt, but their brains still trigger this behavior. It turns out the washing-bear isn’t a bear and doesn’t wash.

Raccoons’ extreme adaptability and omnivorous behavior often bring them into close contact, and sometimes conflict, with people, particularly in developed areas.

Unfortunately, raccoons can carry rabies, roundworm, and other afflictions, so preventing human-raccoon interaction is worthwhile. Don’t leave pet food or scraps unattended outside. Garbage cans left open or otherwise unsecured are an especially inviting target. If yours are a popular nightlife spot, there are a few effective deterrents that don’t harm the animal. Try sprinkling black pepper on the top bag inside the can, or place ammonia-soaked rags atop the lid and seal it shut with bungee cords.

Growing up in urban environments where raccoons have been abundant my whole life, I’ve always thought I knew a decent amount about the species—in particular, that they tend to be solitary critters. I have only very rarely seen multiple raccoons in the same time and place, at least around my house. That pattern of raccoons foraging on their own does hold for most times of year (though there is some evidence “that the species congregates in gender-specific groups.”)

But their reproductive patterns upend my impression of solitude a bit, at least when it comes to mothers rearing their young. The raccoon’s mating season generally runs from January to March. Males and females might temporarily den together then, but soon separate after mating. Females have a roughly 65-day gestation period and give birth to two to five young, or kits, on average in their annual litter. That all seems relatively straightforward, right?

The kits then stay with their mother from birth in April or May until late fall or sometimes the following spring, weaning at about 16 weeks old. During this rearing period, kits accompany their mother everywhere she goes. Emerging near dusk, a female can often be seen traveling on branches, trailed by a single-file line of kits. This together time teaches the kits hunting skills, and where to find feeding grounds and spots for their own dens. Before winter arrives, the kits will disperse to set up their own home ranges, which generally cover 100 to 250 acres. Adolescent and adult females typically stay closer to their mothers than males, who may venture 10 or more miles away. This distance is thought to prevent inbreeding.

A trio of raccoon kits in their tree den. Stock photo.
A trio of raccoon kits in their tree den. Stock photo.

I don’t quite know why I felt as surprised as I did to learn more about the raccoon’s rearing habits—that a mother and her young stay together for months. Perhaps our somewhat ambivalent relationship with the critters is a factor. On the one hand, they can be a relatively common nuisance, whether digging a den under your porch or digging into your garbage cans. On the other hand, they’re considered cute by many, featured in cartoons and adorable illustrations, and, as I mentioned above, made into sports mascots. I can’t say the little bandits steal all our hearts, but then again, they don’t have to. They share the landscape of Lake County with us, and we don’t need to rationalize or justify their existence via any perceived value they provide to humans. It’s just fun to know there’s more to learn about raccoons behind, or beyond, the bandit mask.

Raccoons are strong, skilled climbers. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Raccoons are strong, skilled climbers. Photo © John D. Kavc.

If you’re curious about other nature topics, check out our FREE, biweekly Ask an Educator LIVE program series on Zoom and Facebook. Submit your burning local nature or history questions to our expert panelists every other Wednesday evening, 7-8 pm. Topics vary each session, so keep an eye on our online calendar to catch your favorite. Coming up are Paddlesports on August 5 and Hummingbirds & Monarchs on August 19. No ticket required; just drop in virtually.

4 thoughts on “Behind the bandit mask

  1. Actually it isn’t easy to see raccoons as you suggested. They (as you have said) are nocturnal.
    As you have said raccoons carry rabies, a deadly disease. Since raccoons are nocturnal seeing one during the day (unusual behavior) may be an indicator that that particular raccoon may have rabies.
    I know, most of the rabies in Lake county comes from bats.

    • Thank you for reading, Ellen. Racoons are generally abundant in the preserves, but as you mention, their nocturnal nature can make them more difficult to spot.

      Yes, raccoons can indeed carry rabies. Daytime activity in a raccoon can be one indicator of the disease, but it is important to observe whether the animal also appears disoriented or lethargic, is moving erratically, or is unusually aggressive. If the raccoon behaves normally—apart from being out during the day—it is more likely searching for food or a new den.

      Thanks again!

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