Urban Wilds Vol. 4 – Raccoons

Photo by PoPville flickr user pablo.raw

Urban Wilds is written by Lela S. Lela lives in Petworth. You can read Lela’s previous post on Eastern Skunk Cabbage here.

Spoiled for choice, I struggled to decide what to write about in this post. I’ve been trying to keep installments focused on current phenomena and species that we have a better than usual chance of seeing in a given month, and spring is prime time for all kinds of nesting and blooming things. Then last week, reeling with serious jet lag, I looked at our cat pawing at my suitcase and saw a large raccoon instead. The hallucination only lasted a moment – but was it a sign? Two days later, jogging in Rock Creek, I ran past a large and very dead raccoon; down at the water’s edge, its little handprints were visible in the mud. I accepted this to mean that although they are with us all year round and not doing anything especially interesting right now, the universe would evidently like a post on raccoons.

Raccoons are smart, adaptable generalists that live equally well in urban and rural habitat. They have a storied history in DC: the Coolidge White House kept two pet raccoons (emphatically not recommended) and trotted them out for Easter egg rolls. A 1998 study found extremely high densities in parts of Rock Creek Park – estimated at 333 raccoons per square kilometer! – and they are widespread throughout the city, sometimes sheltering in abandoned houses. Anyone trying to grow vegetables on their roof will probably have experienced raccoon-related losses: they’re omnivores, and eat everything from crayfish to berries to garbage. They have few natural predators in our area (although Great Horned Owls will prey on baby raccoons) and are probably most susceptible to cars and to a range of diseases including canine distemper and rabies. The one I passed while out jogging was almost certainly a traffic fatality.

Raccoons have an unusually wide range of body weights in the wild, from 4-30 lbs (though more commonly 8-20 lbs, with some freakishly large individuals clocking in at over 60 lbs). It’s not unusual for them to lose up to half their weight in winter: while they don’t hibernate, in cold weather they will sleep for long periods of time to conserve energy. Their tracks, in mud, snow, or sand, are distinctive: both front and hind paws have five digits, and the front paws, usually 2-3 inches long, look very much like little human handprints. Raccoon ‘hands’ are quite dexterous and become markedly more sensitive when wet. The species’ Latin name, Procyon lotor, refers in part of their habit of “washing” their food: a raccoon will carry food items down to a stream or pond to manipulate them underwater. It’s now thought that this is done partly because the raccoon can perceive the food better with wet hands. Their sense of hearing is also excellent: supposedly, they can hear earthworms moving underground, although I’ve been unable to verify this.

You can see raccoons almost anywhere in DC. They’re mostly nocturnal, but roam and browse for food during the day as well.

16 Comment

  • Recently encountered a racoon climbing down from my neighbor’s roof. I gasped, he turned and looked, then he went back to his climbing. I’m really glad he was able to remain calm in the situation because I sure as hell wasn’t.

    • Ha ha ha, same experience here. I shrieked when I looked over and saw a raccoon just chilling in the tree next to my patio. It just stared at me for a second, then calmly continued going on his way.

    • While walking in Mount Pleasant I once crossed the street because the granddaddy of all raccoons was occupying the sidewalk, displaying a confidence which said “I ain’t moving”.

  • Der Waschbär! (Racoon in German)….sounds kind of cute…random comment!

  • So how do I keep them away from my house?


    Rabies is endemic in racoons all up and down the East coast of the US. Stay away from them!

    • I think raccoons are adorable… Pretty much the cutest critter around.

      And I have never EVER been tempted to get within 10 feet of one. In my mind, they’re kind of like the Monty Python bunny.

    • pablo .raw

      While I was trying to get closer to take the photo, my co-worker (at safe distance) kept warning me of the same thing!

  • The Post ran a story about raccoons and the fact that’s many are carriers of encephalitis–decidedly not cute.

  • jim_ed

    We have an ENORMOUS one in our neighborhood that has decided to make a home in the porch roof of my neighbors house. I’m actually picking up a trap tomorrow so we can catch him and release him somewhere far away.

    He’s kind of funny though, he saunters down the middle of the sidewalk late at night like he owns the place, and he’s had several epic staring contests with my dog from the tree out front.

  • I hate raccoons ever since I went out to the dumpster one evening and opened it only to find a pair of beady eyes starting back at me about 2 feet away. I dropped the lid on its head (poor thing) out of surprise, but seriously not a fan.

  • Years ago I was living on Fairmont St. While sitting out back reading I kept hearing something moving around under the porch. I assumed it was a stray cat until a big raccoon popped up, right under my propped up legs. We both shrieked (well, I definitely did), and we went in opposite directions. 🙂
    Overall though, they’re fine if you exercise a little caution. Vaccinate your pets, don’t mess w/ sick animals, make sure they can’t next inside your attic etc.

  • I love this. Keep em coming!

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