As illustrated in yesterday’s post, we’ve had a few visitors coming around at night for the last week or so. Coons spend most of the winter holed up in a cozy hollow log or other niche (your attic will do just fine), in a state called “winter rest”. It differs from hibernation in that the metabolism is suppressed a little, but not nearly as far as in true hibernators. This allows them to save energy during times of heavy snow cover, when food is harder to find, but also means they can reenergize quickly when snow melts and there’s the opportunity to get some foraging in before the next snowfall. I guess the thaw last week prompted these two to come out of the hole where they’d been snoozing.
It didn’t take them long to find the stale bag of dog food we’d set out on the deck. We hadn’t seen a raccoon around the area since we’d moved in, and with them hidden away for the winter anyway they weren’t really on my mind. The dog food was some old stuff we’d had for a couple months and decided to replace. We thought we’d maybe toss a handful or two out for the multitude of jays as a treat, so it was sitting on the deck where it was easy to access. Not just for us, but for the coons, too, it turned out. They had the bag tipped over in no time, and crawled right in to better enjoy the feast. I didn’t have the heart to shoo them away from it. I figured there were worse things, nutritionally speaking, that they could get into. Raccoons are the quintessential omnivore, eating whatever they can get their little human-shaped hands on. Most frequently this is invertebrates, which comprise about 40% of their diet, but about a third is plant matter, including such things as berries, acorns and other nuts, and some 27% is vertebrates. They prefer vertebrates that are easy to catch, like nestling birds and eggs, or frogs. Fatty foods such as fruits and nuts are the preferred diet in the fall, since they allow the coons to build up a fat layer for the winter.
They seem to both be youngsters, judging by their size. Either that, or they grow them smaller up here than I’m used to. Not having seen many raccoons here, it’s hard to judge. They always come around together, and I presume they’re likely siblings from the same litter last summer. Recent research suggests that related female raccoons live in “fission-fusion societies”, where they inhabit the same general area and periodically come together at common locations such as popular foraging areas or night-time roosting sites. These could be two sisters, snoozing together during the day and visiting our feeders at night. Come spring, once mated, they will likely split up to birth and raise their kits, but may come together again once their kits are independent. Males will sometimes form groups of three or four during the mating season in order to protect their territory against intruders (strength in numbers), but are often unrelated to one another.
This one flattened herself out in the platform feeder when I stepped outside for a photo, and didn’t budge, perhaps hoping I might not notice her and would go away. She would have had to expose herself awkwardly in order to climb down from the platform – given the spindliness of the supporting pole, it’s somewhat amazing that she got up there in the first place.
At the point that Raven and I stepped out (Raven to pee, me to get photos), they decided it might be wise to move off to the trees temporarily. Here Raven watches as one climbs over the deck railing and down to the ground. They are remarkably agile creatures, given their large, bulky shape. This shouldn’t be too surprising, I suppose, considering that they spend so much time in trees.
When I was in late high school, at some point after obtaining my driver’s license, I was returning home from a year-end band party at one of the band members’ homes out in the country, via country roads to my own parents’ home in the country. Along the way I encountered a tiny little raccoon staggering about the middle of the road. I stopped the car and, not spotting any relatives, gathered it up in a blanket. In retrospect there may have been a mother hidden somewhere I couldn’t see, and it may have been better for me to move the kit to the ditch, out of harm’s way, and just leave it there, but I didn’t. I brought it home, and we raised it. Come fall we started letting it outside at night, and it would go out and explore but return home to sleep for the day, climbing in behind the kitchen cabinets where there was a cozy narrow space.
That coon was an experience. We named him CoonBaby, in an effort to not get too attached (it didn’t work). He was messy, but in a predictable way – once he had settled on a couple of corners to defecate in, he was reliable enough in using them that you could put down newspapers and not have too much mess. Around his food dish was always a huge mess. In that way that coons do, he would pat his food with his hands before eating it, which, with wet dog food, meant that he would leave little pawprints all around his dish. The habit of feeling their food is a hardwired behaviour for raccoons. In the wild, the routine is intended to identify and remove unwanted bits of their food item before they eat it. This tactile sense is heightened when they’re feeding at the water’s edge, as the water softens the calluses on their paws. Raccoons don’t “wash” their food, but captive coons might still dunk their food in their water either in order to feel it better, or simply as an instinctual behaviour, mimicking foraging at the water’s edge.
Eventually that fall he stopped coming back in the morning, which was just as well as the nights were getting colder and it was important for him to find a place to hole up. For a while he would return in the evenings, looking for a handout. Fig Newtons were his favourite. He made some friends, quite possibly joining a group of other males, and it didn’t take long for them to start coming by the house in the evening, too. Fig Newtons became everyone’s favourite. CoonBaby taught them to grab the edge of the storm door with their paw, and let it bang, to alert the food-dispensers inside that they had arrived. Even during the winter, when they would disappear for spells and then periodically show up looking for food, we always knew when they’d come by. Raccoons have unique (albeit subtle) mask patterns, so we could identify CoonBaby from the bunch of them (it also helped that even after he started to go wild, he was still always the most willing to come and take a newton from our hands). We saw him again the following winter, but the third winter he didn’t come back. Although a captive raccoon can live more than 20 years, wild raccoons average only about 2-3, eventually either being predated, hit by a car, or dying due to starvation or exposure over the winter. Distemper can also be a frequent cause of mortality.
Right now we would just be getting into the time of year where coons would be starting to feel a bit horny. Depending on latitude, mating can begin anywhere from January to March, with later timing occurring further north. Females are only in heat for three or four days, so males roam large territories during the spring, hoping to come across a receptive female. Once a male finds a female, he’ll woo her over the course of several nights, spending up to an hour in bed with her each evening. Gestation lasts about two months, so females who mate in March will give birth in May. The kits are about 4 inches long when born, and are naked and blind, and very much helpless.
It was a cold night in late April or May during CoonBaby’s first winter that we went out to answer the door for the coons and discovered something on the porch. Closer inspection revealed it to be a newborn baby coon, no more than a day old, with umbilical still attached. It was cold and very likely near death. It is hard to say how long it had been there, or even how it had come to arrive on the porch. Did a first-year female have an “accident” there and not recognize it as a young she should take home? Or was the kit intentionally brought and left at our door? Of course, we would never find out the answer, but the reason for the kit’s appearance was of only secondary importance. We brought it in and warmed it up, and offered it some milk. The next day some baby formula was purchased, and Mom took on the daunting task of raising this tiny creature.
She survived, and not only that, she thrived. Mom named her Lily. Having already gone through the chore of raising one coon the previous summer, and knowing how much attention they desire, Mom located a raccoon rescue in a nearby town that fostered out baby coons over the summer. We adopted a second one, who was named Camomile, or just Cammy. The idea was that they would entertain each other, but it didn’t exactly work out as planned, and instead they just became double trouble. They were still lots of fun, however, and, just like CoonBaby before them, would come and sit with you while you were reading, let you pick them up and carry them around, and play with them. They had sharp little teeth, but so do cats, and though they played rough it wasn’t all that different from roughhousing with a cat. It was hard not to get quite attached to them. That fall, instead of joining the local coons at the house, they were taken back to the rescue organization, where they were gradually habituated to a wild existence, and then released in a forest tract about an hour away. Of course, we have no idea of how they fared after that, but I hope they both at least lived long enough to raise their own families.
Seeing these two cuties visiting our feeders brings back memories of those couple of summers we spent living with raccoons, most of them good. Of course, despite my fond recollections of the experience, I think I would turn down the opportunity to do it again – just too messy, and too much work, requiring constant attention, like living with a little toddler!