The common name "raccoon" comes from the
Indian word "arakum" or "aracoun," meaning "he scratches
with his hands." Adult raccoons may be up to 3 feet long and
weigh up to 30 pounds. They have a black face mask and
ringed tail. Their fur is long and dense, a grizzled brown and
black color that has often been described as "salt and pepper."
Although raccoons are flesh-eaters and have long canine teeth,
their molar teeth are adapted for a varied diet which includes
more than just meat. The raccoon's closest relatives are
ringtails and coatis from the Southwest.
Raccoons are inquisitive and seldom pass up the opportunity
to investigate an interesting smell or crevice. They probe a
crack with their front feet and pull anything of interest from its
hole for closer inspection.
Raccoons are usually found near trees because they are
adapted to life in the forest. They are agile climbers and have
nimble feet, but they are flat-footed like humans and bears and
are slow runners. Using their sensitive front feet, they catch
prey in and around water, and use their front feet to bring food
to their mouths and hold it while they eat.
Raccoons have well-developed senses of sight, hearing and smell.
Distribution and abundance
Raccoons are found across most of North America. They have long been
common in the eastern United States, but less so in western states. In
the 1940s, a continent-wide population explosion occurred as raccoons
expanded their range and increased in abundance. There
were at least 15 times more raccoons in North American in the
1980s than in the 1930s.
In Nebraska prior to 1940, raccoons were common only in
the eastern third of the state and were relatively scarce elsewhere.
Currently, raccoons are common statewide although they remain more abundant
in eastern Nebraska. In western and central Nebraska, raccoons are most
abundant along major rivers and streams.
Raccoons have adapted well to urban life and are among the
most common wildlife species found in cities and towns.
Habitat and Home
Raccoons are primarily forest inhabitants and most trees in Nebraska grow
near water, so raccoons here are usually associated with rivers and streams
(riparian areas). Ideal raccoon habitat is a well-timbered area
containing several large, mature trees and including a combination of grain
crops and water.
Raccoons are among the most intelligent of wild animals. They are most active
at night and their nightly travels depend upon where food is availabile and
the prevailing weather conditions. The home range of an adult male is
about one mile in diameter, although it expands in size during the breeding
season. Adult females and their young inhabit smaller areas, and one male's
home range often overlaps several females' home ranges. Adult males tend to
be solitary, but family groups are quite social and will feed and den
together into the fall. As family units disband, raccoons become
increasingly solitary. Juveniles leave the area where they were bom between
the fall and spring of their first year and may travel 75 miles or more before
settling in a new location
Raccoons do not construct their own den sites, but rely on
natural processes or the work of other animals. Traditionally, it
was thought that raccoons primarily used hollow trees for
winter den and spring birthing sites. Hollow trees are important, but
studies show that raccoons will den in abandoned buildings, old beaver
lodges or bank dens, car bodies, wood piles, abandoned badger and coyote
dens and hay stacks. In the Sandhills, a raccoon will even make a den in a
dense stand of cattails.
Raccoons do not hibernate, but remain inactive for extended
periods during severe winter weather. They will use communal
or group dens during winter storms. A raccoon uses several
dens within its home range. On summer days, it spends much
of its time on the ground or sprawled on a large tree limb.
Depending on seasonal needs, most foraging is done in or
near water or around the edges of cropfields. A raccoon hunts
in shallow water by turning over rocks and limbs, and probing
and grabbing with its front feet. It examines potential food
items by manipulating them with its front feet and touching
them with its nose.
Raccoons are omnivorous (they eat both animals and plants) and
opportunistic; their diet is dictated by seasonal
protein and energy needs and food availability. In spring,
females feed primarily on high protein animal matter to insure
development and growth of their young. Crayfish, insects,
birds, eggs, fish and young rabbits are eaten when available.
Later in the summer, after the young are weaned, the female's
protein requirements are greatly reduced, allowing her to take
advantage of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables including
mulberries, sweet corn and plums.
With the cooler temperatures of fall, raccoons feed intensively to build
fat reserves for winter. Energy-rich foods including
nuts and grain (such as corn) and high protein foods are pursued at this
time. In winter, raccoons feed on waste grain, carrion and assorted
small animals and insects, but rely on fat reserves to sustain them
during long periods of inactivity.
Breeding occurs between January and March, and peaks in February.
Raccoons pair only to mate, and do not form long-term pair-bonds.
Males will mate with more than one female and do not share in the
rearing of young. Pregnancy lasts about nine weeks, and the young are
weaned at seven to 10 weeks. The young begin to accompany their
mother on excursions by early June.
In Nebraska, yearling female raccoons breed at a lower rate
and have smaller litters than do older, adult females. Less than
70 percent of yearling females are bred, with average litter size
of 3.3 young. Ninety-five percent of adult females are bred,
and have an average of 4 young per litter. Breeding by adult
females is relatively constant from year to year, while breeding
by yearlings can be quite variable. Yearling breeding rates are
thought to reflect the severity of the previous winter and the
overall health of the population.
Studies in Iowa show that survival of young raccoons from birth until
September is about 65 percent, while survival from September through
the following spring is 30 to 50 percent. Annual survival of adult
raccoons is around 60 percent. Raccoons in the Midwest can sustain an
annual harvest of up to 35 to 40 percent of the fall population.
The major causes of mortality for raccoons in the Midwest
are fur harvest, collisions with motor vehicles and disease. Starvation
is seldom an important population regulator in the Midwest. As fur
harvest decreases, mortality from other causes will likely increase. The
most important disease in raccoons in Nebraska is canine distemper,
which can cause severe reductions in raccoon numbers in localized areas.
Most sick raccoons reported in Nebraska are diagnosed as having distemper.
Although the symptoms of distemper are similar to those of
rabies, raccoons in Nebraska seldom are diagnosed as having
Raccoons seldom cause serious problems for
homeowners, farmers or ranchers but their curious nature can
be irritating. Trash cans and dog food containers must sometimes be
modified to exclude raccoons. The raccoon's wellknown love of corn
usually causes only slight damage to field corn yields but sweet corn
stands are sometimes decimated. Damage is usually controlled by removing
the offending animals. Relecation of damage-causing raccoons is often
preferable to killing them, particularly in urban situations.
Raccoons sometimes prey upon the nests of ground-nesting
birds such as ducks and pheasants, and on the nests of cavitynesting
birds such as bluebirds. However, predation is among
the checks and balances of life in the wild. Severe predation is
usually a symptom of other problems, such as a lack of suitable
The raccoon is an important and valuable furbearer in
Nebraska. From 1941 to 1989, more than 1.7 million raccoons
were taken by fur hunters and trappers in Nebraska. Harvest totals from
1980 to 1989 indicate an average annual harvest of
73,000 raccoons with a total value of $1,281,000. This represents over
50 percent of the average annual value of all furbearers harvested
in Nebraska from 1980 to 1989.
Pelt prices for raccoons influence the harvest of all other furbearers.
High raccoon pelt prices stimulate harvest of raccoons
and other species. The raccoon's durable fur is used in the
manufacture of coats, hats and trimming.
Raccoon meat has excellent flavor when roasted, and
thousands are eaten every year.
Raccoons have adapted well to life in modem-day Nebraska, and the most
useful habitat management techniques for raccoons are to restore
riparian habitat along streams and rivers and to save large den trees.