Raccoons are identified easily by a black face mask and a bushy tail with alternating black and light-colored rings. Their backs and sides have long, coarse fur which is usually a grizzled gray-brown, but can vary from yellowish gray to nearly black. A raccoon's muzzle is fairly pointed, and its ears are prominent, rounded and furred. The feet are broad and plantigrade; that is, the raccoon walks on nearly the entire undersurface of its feet, like a bear. The five toes on each foot have well developed claws.
A raccoon's total length, including the tail, varies from 26 to 39 inches. Fall and winter weights vary from 8 to 27 pounds for males and 6 to 20 pounds for females. The heaviest raccoons in Illinois come from the northern part of the state where adult males average 19 pounds; those from southeastern Illinois average 14 pounds.
Distribution & Abundance
Raccoons are abundant and found throughout Illinois. Their numbers have increased dramatically since the early 1900s, and scientists believe there are more raccoons in Illinois today than when the first European settlers arrived here. Populations of 9 to 45 raccoons per square mile are common in Illinois. Fall population estimates as high as 98 to 101 raccoons per square mile have been recorded for parts of Cook, Kane and McHenry counties.
Raccoons occur in nearly all types of habitat. They are most abundant in urban/suburban habitats and areas with a mixture of farmland and woodland, especially where there are hardwood trees like oak and hickory. They are least common in grasslands and agricultural areas with few trees. Streams, rivers, ponds and lakeshores provide good areas for raccoons to search for food.
Raccoons are mostly nocturnal (active from dusk to dawn). The distance an animal travels each night varies with weather conditions, food availability and its sex and age. During most of the year, adult males occupy an area about 1 mile in diameter. They may travel farther during the breeding season while searching for mates. Adult females and their young live in a smaller area, usually three-fourths of a mile in diameter. Raccoons tagged and released in strange surroundings have moved as far as 75 miles.
Raccoons spend much of their time on the ground during summer. On sunny fall and winter days, they may rest on tree limbs or other elevated sunning spots. Dens provide safety and protection from the elements. Several dens may be used at different times by the same animal. Tree cavities are a common choice, but deserted woodchuck burrows, haystacks, storm sewers and even attics will do. Adults seem to prefer solitary lives, but may share their dens during severe winter weather, when populations are high, or in areas where food is concentrated. Raccoons do not hibernate, but may remain inactive in their dens for several days during periods of extreme cold.
Raccoons are expert climbers. When climbing down from trees, they may go either head or tail first, and they often jump before reaching the ground. They spend a lot of time near waterways and are good swimmers. On land, they walk with a flat-footed, lumbering gait. Raccoons will fight if cornered, but prefer to escape or conceal themselves. Captive raccoons are fond of softening their food in water, but do not always do so. They often use their front feet to locate food by touch, and wetting their paws may increase their sensitivity. Few raccoons live past 3 to 4 years of age. The oldest raccoon found in a study conducted in west-central Illinois was 11 years of age.
Raccoons eat a wide variety of plants and animals. Corn is an important food during fall and winter in rural areas. Bird food, pet food and table scraps discarded by people are mainstays in urban areas. Persimmons, wild grapes, wild plums, pecans, blackberries, acorns and pokeberries can be important in certain areas and/or during certain seasons. Animal foods include insects and crayfish, and to a lesser extent, snails, earthworms, clams, birds, fishes, frogs, and small mammals. They hunt in shallow pools, overturn rocks, dig into rotten logs or come upon bird nests or unexpecting animals.
Raccoons usually breed with several different mates. Breeding peaks in February, but can occur from January through March. One litter with three to four young is typical. Most are born in April or early May, but a few may arrive as late as August.
Newborns weigh about 2 1/2 ounces, are furred, and have the typical face mask or develop it within 10 days. Their eyes open at 18 to 29 days of age. Pups venture out from the den beginning at 30 to 60 days of age, and begin accompanying their mother on extended trips at 8 to 10 weeks. Young raccoons can care for themselves by fall, but many stay with their mother until the next spring.
Raccoons are popular animals because they're common and often entertaining. However, they can cause problems, especially where they occur in large numbers or in close association with people. Concerns include the spread of diseases and parasites, damage to crops and homes, and predation on other wildlife, including some endangered species. Hunting and trapping can help to reduce these problems, especially in rural areas. Biologists monitor the number of raccoons that are alive and the number harvested by hunters and trappers each year. This information is used to set regulations that help control populations by allowing the harvest of raccoons for fur, meat and other useful products without causing them to become endangered. Legal seasons for hunting and trapping occur in fall and winter, after the young are grown.
Management in urban areas focuses more on dealing with problems as they arise. More than 65,000 nuisance wildlife complaints occurred in the Chicago area in 2003. Raccoons are responsible for more of these complaints than any other species because they readily den in people's attics and chimneys. People with special licenses are allowed to remove raccoons and other wildlife that are causing damage.