If I had another life to live, I would be a mammalogist. But instead of going to Africa to study the behavior of animals such as elephants or chimpanzees, I would specialize in some of eastern North America’s most common mammals. Countless books have been written about tigers and lions, elephants and chimpanzees, but few, if any, about the lives of gray foxes, porcupines, raccoons, or fox squirrels. Yet, over the years, I have observed behavior in those creatures and others that I cannot verify in either the popular or scientific literature.
For instance, back on March 9, 2000, as I walked along Greenbrier Trail, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by growling shrieks that I thought, at first, were made by an owl being harrassed by crows. Yet the intermittent shrieks did not seem to be coming from the same place as the cawing crows.
Puzzled by the sound, I sat down in a dense grove of striped maple trees just as it started to shower. Under my umbrella, I continued listening to the growling shrieks, but I still could not pinpoint the source. When it stopped raining, I resumed my walk, moving quietly as I scanned the trees above the trail.
Finally, I spotted a raccoon climbing out on a tree branch and then down the trunk of a red oak in pursuit of another raccoon perched on a branch on the opposite side of the tree from where I was standing. I quickly decided that the shrieking raccoon was the female and the pursuer the male.
More shrieking erupted and then the male climbed several feet above the motionless female and moved restlessly around on branches and tree trunk as if he was trying to figure out another approach. Slowly he slid down the trunk head first toward the female, all the time emitting calls that sounded like clicking castanets, and settled into a tree crotch next to the female. He continued to be restless, periodically moving around in slow motion, while the female, partially hidden from me by a mass of grapevines, remained still.
Frustrated by my partially-blocked view of the proceedings, I climbed up the ridge so that I could look down at the raccoons’ tree. I watched as the male descended below the female and then climbed back up above her. She shrieked several times, he growled, and finally he laid down on top of her. They looked like amorphous, fuzzy blobs in the tree, veiled, as they were, by the grapevines. Finally, he moved around, his tail up, then down, his forepaws stroking her face. Whenever he moved, she shrieked, but he was firmly planted on top of her. At the time, I thought I was witnessing mating. Later, I learned that raccoon matings are much rougher affairs and last almost an hour or, at least, the one mating ever observed in the wild and recorded, did so.
Howard J. Stains published “The Raccoon in Kansas” in 1956. Stains had studied raccoons in the field from July 1951 to November 1954. Despite devoting 2,550 man hours to his work, he observed mating raccoons only once–on February 26, 1954–and it is his work that has been cited in every account of raccoons I have read. After reading his blow by blow account, I could understand why no one goes into any detail about raccoon mating. If it was made into a movie, it would probably earn a R or maybe even an X rating. Either the raccoons I was watching had not read Stains’s paper or their courtship was much gentler than their mating.
After several minutes, the male raccoon arose and chased the female higher up the tree, she shrieking, he making purring clucks. They met nose to nose and patted each other’s faces with their forepaws. Then the female curled up in a furry ball while the male again restlessly moved around, sniffing her back side as if he were checking to see if she was ready to mate. At last he retreated a couple feet below her and settled down just as the sun appeared from behind the lowering clouds.
Because I am not a mammalogist and could not spend the entire day watching them, I reluctantly turned homeward when the raccoons quieted down, convinced that I had watched only a portion of what seemed to be an intricate courtship.
Over the next several weeks, I pored over books and scientific papers on raccoons. All of them had little or nothing to say about courtship or mating. The casual reader might even conclude that raccoons are the result of immaculate conception! Once I found the Stains paper, though, I understood why.
Finally, I found an article published in the journal ANIMAL BEHAVIOR in 1999, by Stanley D. Gehrt and Erik K. Fritzell who had radio-monitored raccoons in southern Texas during the 1990-92 mating season. They wanted to find out if different raccoons followed different mating strategies.
Sure enough, Gehrt and Fritzell discovered an incredible variation in the mating strategies of raccoons even within the limited population they studied. Consortship, which they defined as a “diurnal association between an adult male and female observed resting together or sharing a small den structure with a single opening,” lasted anywhere from one to three days. During 62% of consortships, one female consorted with only one male. The rest consorted with between two and four males. Those with shorter oestrous periods, between two and three days, consorted with only one male. Those with longer oestrous periods (four to six days) consorted with more than one male. But exactly what they did during this period remained murky.
The males, themselves, formed loose groups in a home range and the dominant male consorted with most of the females while subordinate males tried to find a female before the dominant male. In addition, solitary males roamed from home range to home range in search of females.
While Gehrt and Fritzell did not mention the specifics of raccoon courtship, it was obvious that the whole process is incredibly varied, and that I was lucky to be given such an intimate look at a portion of the process.
Whatever their courtship and mating strategies may be, though, the end result is the birth of between two and seven cubs 63 days later in the female’s tree den. Two years in a row, near the end of April, I heard the bird-like twittering of newborn raccoon cubs coming from a hole 20 feet up in a black locust snag. Once my husband Bruce put a ladder against the snag and climbed up to watch a mother raccoon nursing young. Later, a youngster, its eyes tightly shut, poked its masked face out of the hole.
The cubs finally open their eyes at four weeks of age and their twittering changes to churrs and growls. If the den is disturbed, they hiss, and their distress calls sound like a crying human infant.
At the same time the female begins to wean them, when they are six to nine weeks old, she also moves them from her den tree to a ground bed on the forest floor or in a wetland. By then they are playing exuberantly. A few weeks later they begin to accompany her on short, round-trip excursions. Within a week they are able to move and bed together, following their mother as she emits a constant low, grumbling purr. When they disobey, she slaps their rear ends. Once they are thoroughly weaned, at four months of age, they are more independent, trailing behind or ahead of her. Throughout the summer she teaches them to climb and hunt for food.
They spend the autumn fattening up on a wide variety of wild fruits and nuts, especially acorns, and usually den together in the winter. Raccoons are not true hibernators, but here in central Pennsylvania and farther north they tend to spend the bitter months of mid-January through February in restless sleep. Their body temperature drops from 100.6 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, they don’t urinate or defecate, and they live on their stored body fat, losing half their body weight by spring.
One researcher found 23 raccoons, half of which were juveniles, denning in an abandoned Minnesota house. Another group denned under the pulpit of an active, rural Methodist church. They may also den in skunk or woodchuck holes and when spring comes, they fight. Our son Dave can testify to that. A menagerie of critters den under our guesthouse where he lives–a porcupine, woodchuck, skunk, and raccoons–and Dave’s sleep is often interrupted by shrieks, yells, and growls from his quarreling tenants.
Once they leave their winter dens, families disperse. Males travel farther than females, as much as ten miles or more, and one radio-tagged male raccoon went 26.7 miles.
Raccoons are ecological opportunists that range from Panama to Canada. They eat both animal and vegetable matter such as grasshoppers, earthworms, snails, spiders, birds and their eggs, small mammals, frogs, fish, wild grapes, beechnuts, apples, and corn, although their favorite food is said to be crayfish.
A wide body of folklore has sprung up around them, beginning with the Indian tribes that endowed them with all sorts of magical powers. The Siouan tribes gave them names that meant “one who is sacred” or “one with magic” and the Aztecs referred to a female as “she who talks with gods.”
Both their masked faces and their dexterous forepaws fascinated native Americans and early settlers. Another Dakota Sioux tribe referred to a raccoon as the “sacred one with painted face.” Algonquians called them “arakun,” meaning “he who scratches with his hands,” from which we get the name “raccoon.” But it was the Hurons who named them “ee-ree-ah-gee” or “big-tailed” ones, for their long, furry, ringed tails. That name was later shortened to “Erie.” So both the great lake and the city were named for raccoons.
Lately, researchers have tested their intelligence and have found them to be at least as smart as cats. Certainly, their behavior is endlessly fascinating and endlessly varied which is why I continue to watch these common, but still mysterious mammals as they go about their unique lives.