Gloucester County Nature Club: Raccoons are built to thrive

South Jersey Times By South Jersey Times
on November 03, 2014 at 12:39 PM, updated November 03, 2014 at 12:57 PM

 

Raccoon in New JerseyBy Karl Anderson

 

Dead raccoons are a too-familiar sight along the highways at this time of year. Most of them are young animals that have just left their mother's care. They know how to find food but are not very wise to the danger of automobiles.

But have no fear for the fate of their species. Raccoons are intelligent, adaptable, and omnivorous — a good formula for success in the animal world. They will be around for a long, long time.

Raccoons range from Canada to Panama, wherever there are trees or man-made structures for den sites and refuges. They live throughout New Jersey, in urban areas as well as in wild country. They have been introduced into France, Germany, parts of eastern Europe, and Japan.

Some of these introductions were intentional, for fur or food; others accidental by the escape of pets or zoo animals. There are multiple subspecies, and anyone who has seen raccoons in southern Florida will have noticed that the animals there are smaller than the ones we have locally. 

The raccoon was one of the first of our native mammals to attract the attention of European explorers. Columbus wrote about it. The name is derived from the language of the Powhatan people of Virginia, as recorded by Captain John Smith in 1608.  

Our South Jersey Mantae and Narraticon people called it "nahanem." This is one animal that everybody seems to know, even if they have never seen one.

Raccoons are active mostly but not entirely at night. During the day they usually sleep in some sheltered spot, but there is no need to panic if you see one foraging for food when the sun is out. Their animal foods include insects, crayfish, frogs, earthworms, and eggs of birds and turtles. Vegetable foods include fruit, berries and acorns. In urban and suburban areas they scavenge for food in trash cans, eat dog and cat food that has been left outside, and raid gardens.

A big male New Jersey raccoon can weigh up to 20 pounds. Females are about 20 percent smaller. Individuals of both sexes have overlapping home ranges, but they do not defend territories and in fact will sometimes form "alliances" with neighbors of their own sex.

In South Jersey, mating occurs in January or February. The male leaves after mating. The female will search out a breeding den that is larger and more protected than the casual daylight resting site. This den will be occupied for the six or seven months needed for birth and rearing of kits. Dens in attics are not unusual.  

The three to five young are born in March or April. The young raccoons leave the den when they are about two months old, follow their mother around on her foraging trips for several months after that, and go on their way in the autumn.

For information about the Gloucester County Nature Club, see gcnatureclub.org/.

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