11 Riveting Facts About Raccoons

Their dark masks actually serve a purpose.

Raccoon posing
Raccoons don't face many threats. Trevor Rousselle / Getty Images

Raccoons are smart and handy critters and, because they don't face many threats, there are plenty of them all over most of North America. Although they can be entertaining to watch, they aren't the safest of animals. Discover what's behind these and other interesting facts about the clever raccoon.

1. They Are Opportunistic Eaters

Raccoons are omnivores and opportunistic eaters, which means they feed on whatever is most convenient. Their meals can include nuts, berries, fruits, acorns, grasshoppers, mice, fish, frogs, insects, small mammals, and ground-dwelling birds and their eggs. Raccoons are also adept scavengers. They rummage through garbage cans and compost piles and steal pet food that is left outside overnight. They climb bird feeders and dine on birdseed, as well.

2. They Seem to Wash Their Food Before Eating It

Little Raccoon on tree
amadeusamse / Getty Images

Procyon lotor is the Latin name for the raccoon, and lotor means “the washerman.” If you watch raccoons eating you'll notice that they often seem to wash their food before they dine. If there’s no water around, they still go through the same motions, moving their forepaws around on their food and lifting it up and down. However, researchers say it's not a cleanliness habit that drives this behavior. 

Wildlife biologists believe that raccoons have very sensitive nerves on the fingers of their front paws. When they are foraging for food in water, they are feeling around with their paws to gather sensory information. In a study of 136 raccoons, researchers in Nova Scotia found that wetting the skin helped increase the responsiveness of those nerves. But even when there’s no water around, the dunking ritual helps them grip their food and get it to their mouths.

3. They Live Nearly Anywhere

Raccoons live throughout the continental U.S. except for parts of the Rocky Mountains and the deserts, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They’re also found in Canada and Central America. They’re not picky about where they live, as long as there’s water nearby. They make their dens in the ground, hollow trees, or in crevices in rocks. In more urban areas, they venture into homes and make their dens in attics, chimneys, and in crawl spaces underneath houses.

4. Their Masks Are Anti-Glare Devices

Raccoon at Caumsett State Park, Long Island
The raccoon's dark face mask may help deflect the sun. Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

Raccoons are known for their bandit-like dark face masks. One theory is that the distinctive dark markings help deflect the sun’s glare and also may enhance night vision. Some researchers have theorized that dark masks work in animals to hide their eyes from predators. But a study published in Biological Journal concluded that the dark patterns are most likely anti-glare devices.

5. They Are Intelligent Animals

Raccoons are incredibly smart. Some scholars even suggest that their discriminatory abilities are equal, if not superior, to those of domestic cats.

In a 2017 study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers assessed eight captive raccoons for causal understanding. The raccoons were shown a cylinder filled with water containing a marshmallow that was too low to grasp. Then, the researchers demonstrated that if they dropped pebbles into the cylinder, the water level would rise so that the treat was within the raccoons' grasp. Two raccoons learned how to drop stones to get the treat. A third found an even easier way: she tipped over the tube to access the marshmallow more quickly. The researchers concluded that the raccoons were "innovative in many aspects of this task."

6. They Are Very Handy

Raccoons hands on human palm
Raccoons hands on a human palm. Zoran Kolundzija / Getty Images

Raccoons have five toes on their front and back paws. Their forepaws are particularly dexterous and actually look and work like slender human hands. They use their nimble finger-like toes to hold and manipulate food, as well as a range of objects, including latches, lids, jars, boxes, and doorknobs. That’s why they seem to be able to get into pretty much anywhere and are easily able to lift the tops off garbage cans and open all sorts of containers.

7. They Stick to Themselves

Raccoons are mostly solitary animals. As nocturnal creatures, they rarely venture out during the daytime, and they try to stay close to their den, only traveling far enough to get what they need to eat and drink.

Occasionally, groups of female raccoons spend time together, but each female will split off from the group when it’s time to breed and raise her young. Females stay with their babies (called kits) until they are about one year old. Males may stay with the female for up to one month before breeding, then depart after the birth of their young.

8. They Face Few Threats

fur pelts on textile coat layout on table
Raccoon fur in coat manufacturing workshop. KrimKate / Getty Images

Although so many animal populations have been diminished because of human urbanization and growth, raccoons have readily adapted to living alongside people. According to the IUCN, the Northern raccoon is a species of "least concern," and its population numbers are rising.

While there are no major threats to the survival of raccoons, they do face dangers. They are hunted for sport and trapped for their fur. In suburban locations and near water, raccoons are one of the more frequent victims of roadkill. Additionally, raccoons are often hunted, trapped, and poisoned by homeowners and farmers who consider them a pest. In other human environments they are actually considered pest control, like in the San Diego Zoo, where they help manage rodent populations.

9. They Like Urban Settings

Raccoons have enjoyed an "astonishing" surge in urban and suburban areas over the past 80 years, according to zoologist Sam Zeveloff. Because they're so intelligent, the urban-dwelling ones are developing skills that their rural counterparts do not have; they're figuring out how to navigate human-made obstacles. They adapt to a vast range of sleeping spots, use their agile fingers to open garbage cans and enter garages and other buildings, and climb fire escapes. Toronto, which has been overrun by raccoons, has earned the unfortunate title of "raccoon capital of the world," and the city's mayor has even declared a war on raccoons in which "defeat is not an option."

10. They Have a Lot of Babies

Raccoons are more likely to reproduce than many other wild animals. They breed only once per year, but a female will give birth to three or four babies on average. Often she waits till the last minute to find a den to give birth, which is why urban structures are so appealing; they have many immediately-accessible hiding spots. The mother raccoon is fiercely maternal and will cause immense damage if separated from her offspring. Babies stay with their mother throughout their first winter before venturing off on their own.

baby raccoon walks on a fence

seb29 / Getty Images

11. They Carry Diseases and Parasites

After bats, raccoons are the second most frequently reported rabid wildlife species, according to the CDC. They can carry it without any outward signs or symptoms. Human rabies cases are rare in the United States, however. Between 2009 and 2019, only 25 cases of human rabies were reported in the U.S., and just two of those cases were associated with raccoons.

Raccoons can also carry raccoon roundworm, a serious disease that can cause neurological damage. It spreads through the ingestion of soil or other materials contaminated with an infected raccoon's feces. In addition, raccoons may carry leptospirosis and distemper. To keep your family and pets safe, wash your hands after spending time outdoors, teach young children not to put soil in their mouths, and keep your pets vaccinated.

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