‘Masked bandit’ is alive and well in The Last Green Valley
I grew up in a one-level house located on a deadend road in the middle of suburban woods. Just outside my bedroom window was an in-ground garbage pail. Back in “those days,” before in-sink garbage disposals, we separated our food waste from paper trash and placed it into a metal garbage pail set in an in-ground, larger steel container. The container was accessed at the top by a cast iron door activated by a foot lever. Every couple of days we’d empty kitchen food waste into the pail and once a week the owner of a local pig farm would come to take away the garbage.
Too often, my summer slumber would be disturbed by the clang of the cast iron garbage pail door as it slammed shut. I would peer out the window with my flashlight and listen to the strange murmurings of a wild animal deep inside the pail. Eventually the face of a masked bandit would appear as it popped its head out of the pail, then made a mad dash for the woods with an assortment of corn cobs and leftovers in its mouth.
No amount of heavy rocks could deter the large raccoon’s frequent visits. I named our nighttime visitor “Rocky” after the Beatles song Rocky Raccoon. One summer evening, Rocky brought the whole family of four youngsters. They lined up on the trunk of a nearby tree, patiently waiting for takeout. It was then I realized that Rocky was a female and her summertime garbage pail raids were to feed her growing family.
By the early 1970s, the man who collected the food waste had retired, the old steel pail was pulled from the ground, and an automatic disposal was installed in our kitchen sink. I never did see Rocky again.
My fascination with raccoons hasn’t diminished. Here is some information about raccoons from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection “Racoon Factsheet” and other sources.
Raccoons are very common throughout the New England states. They range from Canada south to Mexico and Central America. They are less frequent in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest.
Raccoons can thrive in a variety of habitats, even those created by humans.
Southern New England’s expanding human population has been a boon for this opportunistic species. Lots of people means easy access to food sources. Garbage, gardens, bird feeders and compost bins are favorite hunting grounds for these adaptable creatures.
One of the most easily recognized mammals, the raccoon is distinguished by a black mask across its eyes and cheeks, and black rings around its bushy tail. Long, thick fur gives raccoons a typical gray-brown color. They have short and slightly rounded ears bordered by white fur, and pointed snouts. Adult raccoons weigh between 10 and 20 pounds, with males larger than females. Raccoons range in length from 23 to 38 inches, including the tail.
Raccoons prefer to live in wooded areas near streams, ponds and marshes but are also found in agricultural areas and near human development. They make their dens in tree cavities, abandoned woodchuck or fox burrows, rock crevices, brush piles and even chimneys, attics, sheds, and other manmade structures.
Opportunistic and omnivorous, raccoons have a varied diet that includes fruits, acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, grains, invertebrate animals such as crayfish (a favorite) and insects. They will also take small rodents, young rabbits, birds, turtles and turtle eggs, fish and even carrion. They are good swimmers and will hunt crayfish, frogs and fresh-water mussels.
One of my favorite sources of information about wildlife is professional tracker, photographer, wildlife consultant and author Paul Rezendes. His book, “Tracking and the Art of Seeing,” is a must for nature enthusiasts. Here is a quote from his chapter on raccoons:
The name raccoon is from the Algonquian word “arakunem” meaning “least like a fox.” Their Latin name is Procyon lotor, which means “washer,” and refers to the popular misconception that racoons like to wash their food in water before eating it. Raccoons in the wild do not “wash” their food. Studies have shown that only raccoons in captivity dunk their dinners before eating and they’ll do so whether the food is wet or dry, clean or dirty. According to wildlife biologist Jim Cardoza, this “dabbling” is a fixed behavioral motor pattern that facilitates finding food in the aquatic environment. In captivity, food is provided, but the dabbling search pattern is innate and is expressed by what we see as washing.
Raccoons will prey on birds and bird nests, and often raid bluebird nest boxes that are not protected with predator guards. They are also known to swim to offshore islands and feed on both egret eggs and newborn, and they will climb heron rookery trees to feed on heron eggs and newborn.
Breeding season starts in late winter or early spring. The male does not remain with the female after breeding and the young are born in April or May after a 63-day gestation period. Females produce only one litter per year, with an average of four cubs per litter. The cubs are born blind, helpless, and are covered with yellowish-gray fur. After 30 to 40 days, the cubs leave the den and will travel with the female for short distances to search for food. At three to four months, the cubs begin to forage on their own.
The front and hind paws of raccoons have five digits each. The dexterous front paws enable the raccoon to grasp and manipulate food items. They are excellent climbers, and can descend a tree head first.
Raccoons are primarily active at dawn and dusk and night. They occasionally venture out in the daytime. Raccoons will adjust their feeding schedules, especially in spring when raising young. They may “den up” during the coldest periods in late fall and winter, however, they are not true hibernators, and will venture out during warm spells.
Raccoon rabies first appeared in Connecticut in 1991 and raccoons are the primary carriers of this virus in the northeastern United States. Other mammals, including dogs, cats, skunks, foxes, woodchucks, and livestock, also have been infected with rabies.
The following symptoms may indicate an infection from rabies, distemper, or other diseases: unprovoked aggression, impaired movement, paralysis or lack of coordination, unusually friendly behavior, and disorientation.
Daytime activity alone is not indicative of a raccoon with rabies; other symptoms also must be observed. Contact with any wild or stray animal should be avoided, especially if it is behaving abnormally. Report sick or strange-acting animals to the local police or animal control officer.
Our masked bandit is alive and well and living all around us. Over the past few years, I have been seeing more and more raccoons and their tracks along muddy streams and rivers. They seem to be rebounding from the rabies that dramatically reduced their numbers in the 1990s. They are truly amazing animals and an important part of the wildlife we enjoy here in The Last Green Valley.
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