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WILD THING

Masked Marauder

Wily raccoons use sharp wits and dexterous hands for midnight raids.

By Louie Bond


Whether you love to hate them or hate to love them, raccoons are as rascally as you might expect, considering those adorable bandit masks they sport. The common raccoon (Procyon lotor) can be found just about anywhere in the state, usually sleeping in their den (likely a hollow tree or log) during the daylight and looking to steal your sandwiches by night.
Photo © Rob Curtis / The Early Birder

Raccoons have some of the most dexterous hands in nature, as evidenced by their ease in burglarizing our ice chests. The English word “raccoon” comes from the Powhatan word aroughcun, which means “animal that scratches with its hands.” The Aztecs named it mapachitli, or “one who takes everything in its hands.” Today mapache means “raccoon” in Spanish.

Raccoons’ famous black masks do more than make them look like adorable outlaws — they also help them see clearly. It’s like the black that athletes wear under their eyes to absorb incoming light and reduce glare. At night, when raccoons are most active, less peripheral light makes it easier for them to perceive contrast in the objects of their focus.

There was even a White House raccoon in the Calvin Coolidge administration. Rebecca the raccoon was slated for Thanksgiving dinner, but once Coolidge met the live critter, he decided to adopt her, not eat her. Rebecca soon became part of the family, receiving an engraved collar for Christmas, taking part in the annual Easter egg roll and frequently accompanying the president on walks around the White House grounds. (Coolidge’s other presidential pets included a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, two lion cubs, an antelope and a wallaby.)

Found throughout Texas, raccoons live along water bodies, in wooded areas or near cliffs or bluffs. They bear two to seven young, born around April or May. Raccoons can adapt to thrive in all environments. In the forests, raccoons will eat birds, insects, fruits, nuts and seeds, while in residential areas they’ll scavenge for garbage and pet food.

While most animals use either sight, sound or smell to hunt, raccoons rely on their sense of touch to locate goodies. Their front paws are incredibly dexterous and contain roughly four times more sensory receptors than their back paws — about the same ratio as human hands to feet. This allows them to differentiate between objects without seeing them, helpful when feeding at night.

Raccoons heighten their sense of touch through dousing. Dousing looks like food washing, but they’re actually wetting their paws to stimulate the nerve endings.

Mothers raise young raccoons by themselves, keeping the family unit together long after weaning. While raccoons are known to “hole up” during the winter months in colder parts of the state, they don’t go through the physiological changes that occur during a true hibernation.



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