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My Masked Neighbors

Bayou-Diversity (25 August 2019) One night not long ago I was surprised to hear scratching noises on my bathroom window, especially since that window is on the second story of my house. A flashlight revealed the culprit to be a raccoon, one that is known to us as she frequently raids the bird feeders and compost pile. This occasion revealed several things about the natural history of raccoons. First, they are mostly nocturnal although they occasionally can be seen out and about in daylight hours. Second, they are excellent climbers. She had climbed twenty feet straight up the side of my wooden house. Third, they are omnivorous, which means they eat a wide variety of plant and animal foods. She was carrying in her mouth the remains of a dinner-plate sized red wasp nest filled with larvae that she had removed from under the eave. Finally, raccoons are comfortable living in close proximity with humans, often to the point of becoming pests.

Most people today are familiar with these beagle-sized mammals with their black eye mask and ringed, bushy tail. Well known to Native Americans, raccoons prowl about their mythology as tricksters and creatures with supernatural abilities. They gaze out mischievously in petroglyphs from California to Kentucky. They were, however, novelties to the first Europeans in North America who struggled to categorize them in relation to known animals in their homelands. Early French settlers considered them strange cats and called them “chat sauvage.” Cat Island off the Louisiana coast may have been named by the explorer Iberville when he observed what he thought to be these strange “cats” that lived there. In fact, raccoons are much closer kin to bears than cats.

A volume of scientific literature could be assembled concerning the life history of raccoons – physical characteristics, feeding habits, reproduction, home range, life expectancy, predators, diseases, etc. In summarizing this material, one thing would become obvious. Raccoons are survivors, even flourishers in today’s world. Robust populations now exist in several European countries and Japan as a result of intentional releases. In Louisiana they are common in every parish in all habitat types, and this in spite of the fact that more than 100,000 were trapped each year for decades in the fur industry. Today, the biggest hazard a raccoon faces is not a trap but rather an automobile speeding down a highway through her territory. (©KO; photo by Tenn. WRA)


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