Technical Papers

NJ Homeowner's Guide to Raccoons

Friday, May 15th, 2015 by Bill Cowley

raccoon with garbage

Raccoons live throughout the state of New Jersey. Because of their relatively high level of intelligence and their omnivorous diet, they have readily adapted to many different living areas, including suburban and urban settings. As a result, raccoons are common nuisance wildlife, often taking refuge in attics, crawl spaces, and other non-inhabited spaces of homes.

Physical Characteristics:

No doubt, a raccoons’ distinguishing feature is their distinct “mask” of black fur, reminiscent of a mask that a criminal may wear to hide his identity during a bank holdup.  One theory for raccoons developing this strip of dark fur is that it reduces glare and enhances night vision. Another raccoon characteristic is their large, bushy tail, which displays up to eight black rings of fur. Because its hind legs are longer than its front legs; raccoons often appear hunched when walking or running.

The size of raccoons varies greatly depending on location. Typically, raccoons are much larger in areas with colder climates like in New Jersey. Here, raccoons can weigh more than twenty pounds.  About fifty percent of their weight is body fat.

Raccoons are medium-sized mammals. From nose to tail, the average raccoon is between two and three feet long. The male raccoon, or boar, is slightly larger than the female, or sow. Raccoon babies are referred to as kits. A family of raccoons is known as a gaze.

Habitat:

Raccoons are native to North America. They can be found throughout the United States, except for parts of the Rocky Mountains and a few sections of the southwest including parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Besides the United States, raccoons inhabit parts of Canada, Mexico, and even the northernmost regions of South America. During the 20th century, raccoons were brought to other continents. They are now found in Germany, Russia, and Japan.

In the wild, raccoons typically live in tree cavities or burrows. As nocturnal animals, they emerge at dusk to hunt frogs and crustaceans, always keeping an eye out for predators such as coyotes and foxes. The species originally kept to the deciduous and mixed forests of North America; however, because of their impressive ability to adapt, they have since thrived in a wide range of habitats. With the expansion of farming, raccoons soon discovered that barns and other outdoor buildings provided them with shelter and proximity to food. Over time, raccoons adapted to living closer and closer to humans and their abundant sources of shelter and food. The first urban sighting of a raccoon was in Cincinnati during the 1920s. Now, raccoons are commonplace in many urban and suburban areas. Raccoon populations thrive in urban areas, because of the general absence of predators and an abundance of available human food.

Reproduction:

Raccoons often congregate in gender-specific groups, mating anytime between January and June. Most females are able to reproduce by the age of one. After a 65-day gestation period, usually in the spring, they have up to five kits. A mother raccoon typically separates from other raccoons to raise her young alone. The male does not participate in the raising of the kits. The kits stay in the den with their mother until they are between 8-10 weeks old. After ten weeks, they start to leave the den, but stay with their mother during their first year.

Diet:

Raccoons are omnivores. In the wild, they eat plants and other animals, including fruits, berries, nuts, fish, frogs, insects, turtles, mice, rabbits, muskrats, and bird eggs. In urban environments, they often seek out discarded food in garbage cans. Using their small, flexible, long fingered front paws, they easily climb, hold, and pry things open. Unlike other scavenging animals, raccoons can easily open trashcans with their dexterous paws, which resemble furry human hands. Using their short and sharp teeth (with the exception of two long fangs on both the top and bottom rows), they can readily eat a variety of prey and vegetation.

In New Jersey, raccoons gorge themselves in spring and summer to store body fat. Although raccoons do not technically hibernate like a bear, with their excess body fat, they are able to spend much of the winter asleep in a den. While they sometimes venture out in the winter to eat, they are much more likely to be spotted during the warmer months of the year.

Threat to Humans:

Here, in New Jersey, a raccoon has few predators. Most of the raccoon’s natural predators, such as cougars, bobcats, and coyotes are not as prevalent as they used to be. Now, the primary risk to raccoons comes from disease, infection, and accidents involving cars. Without natural predators, raccoon populations flourish, and they find their way in and around human habitats.

Unfortunately, raccoon populations in suburban and urban areas have increased the likelihood of disease transmission from raccoons to humans. Besides the obvious concern that wild raccoons are very apt to bite if threatened, they are one of the primary carriers of the rabies virus. In the United States, the four primary rabies vector species are raccoons, foxes, skunks, and bats.

Raccoons are also vectors of other diseases including roundworm and trichinosis. A person does not have to come in direct contact with a raccoon to become infected. For example, a person can become infected with roundworm simply by breathing in the airborne spores of raccoon feces deposited inside the home. Raccoon infestations are a serious health hazard; these infestations should be treated as a bona fide emergency and resolved quickly. After the raccoons have been removed, it is important to properly clean and disinfect the area to avoid diseases that can be spread through a raccoon’s droppings. For those interested in a detailed account of proper wildlife cleanup, refer to this Middletown, NJ Raccoon Infestation case study.