This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Masked raider and hat trimmer – the Racoon

Posted in America, Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 30 September 2011

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 829 published on 3 December 1977.

racoon, picture, image, illustration

The racoon

The racoon’s sharp teeth and slashing claws mean that it has few natural enemies, but its taste for poultry, eggs and vegetables has earned it the enmity of American farmers. Because of this – and the popularity of its fur – the hungry little New World hunter, once one of the most common animals in North America, is now rare.

When much of America was not yet cultivated, fur-trappers relentlessly hunted down racoons for their furs, and hats made from racoon pelts – with the racoon’s distinctively striped tail hanging down the back – were popular in both America and Europe. Racoon pelts were an important part of the fur trade, and as recently as 100 years ago traders in the Mississippi Valley used racoon skins instead of money as a medium of exchange.

The racoon belongs to the same family of carnivorous animals as the bear. An adult is about a metre long from nose to tail. They are fierce fighters if attacked, and a lone dog is likely to come off second best in a clash with a fully-grown “coon”.

They are creatures of the night, and are seldom seen by day, except in cloudy weather. Many American farmers believe that if they catch sight of a racoon during the day, rain cannot be far off.

Racoons usually make their homes high up in the hollows of tall trees, often preferring dead limbs to the tree-trunk itself. Sometimes however, they choose hollow logs on the ground, or may even take over burrows in the ground made by other animals. But wherever a racoon lives, it spends the day inside.

When night falls it will wake up and set off in search of a late dinner. But at the slightest hint of danger it rushes up the nearest tree, climbing with amazing speed with its long, sharp claws.

Racoons are mighty hunters of birds, rats and frogs, and are particularly fond of all types of eggs. They often thrust their long front paws into the holes of trees used by nesting woodpeckers, to steal their eggs. If there are no wild birds about, they will raid poultry runs on farms to steal the eggs and young chickens.

“Coons” are so fond of eggs that they will wait patiently while turtles bury their eggs in the sand and, when the turtles leave, will hurry down to dig up the eggs and eat them.

Although its feet are thin and have no webs, the racoon is an expert swimmer and can dive into rivers at lightning speed to snatch fish with its forepaws.

But whatever its catch, the racoon always carries it to the nearest river or stream and meticulously washes it before eating, even doing so with fish it has just caught. No one has been able to establish the reason for this.

The racoon will then carry its food to the nearest tree. There, sitting with its back against the trunk, it will hold its food in its hind paws, picking small pieces off with its forepaws.

Female racoons have litters of five or six babies, which are born in the spring. Although they can, and do, go hunting with their parents when they are only two months old, they live with their parents until they are a year old, before establishing their own homes.

In the autumn the racoon begins searching for a really comfortable home and, immediately winter sets in, it hibernates. But if the weather turns warm, it wakes up and goes off in search of something to eat.

The North American racoon has a South American cousin, the crab-eating racoon, which has exceptionally powerful jaws that it uses to crunch up its favourite food – crabs.

Despite their reputation as thieves, racoons have become part of the folklore of America, thanks to the Brer Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris. Brer Coon appears again and again in these stories and is almost as famous as Brer Rabbit himself. So, while the real-life racoon may be growing scarcer, his fictional counterpart lives on.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.