Story and photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… sometimes it is only as far as our balcony to fill the bird feeders and add fresh water to the birdbath. That would be a day when the winds are howling and deep snow has blocked the driveway and temperatures are in the minus zero single digits. If the day is crisp, bright, snowy and welcoming then I can’t wait to get outside and explore. The use of snowshoes, cross country skis or boots with crampons helps me navigate our snowy terrain in search of photo opportunities. We are blessed to have so many hiking trails, nature centers and county, state and national parks that we can enjoy throughout each season of the year.
Vistas both wide and narrow attract my photographic attention more often in winter on the day after a new snowfall. Throughout my travels, I can usually find interesting animal tracks and scat along the trails. Wildlife will generally take advantage of tramped trails rather than traversing deep snows. Numerous animals don’t hibernate and may be observed as they pursue food or each other. Raccoons are among those who are not true hibernators. A true hibernator like woodchucks and bears will bulk up eating fatty foods and then live off their own stored body fat for many months. Raccoons will also consume foods rich in fat, carbohydrates, and proteins in addition to those containing calcium, potassium, niacin, and phosphorus which will assist them through their dormant periods throughout the winter.
Raccoons are normally solitary mammals except for breeding time which generally occurs sometime within January and February in our area. Females will den up alone or sometimes with her offspring of the past litter. Males den up alone and will travel as many as ten miles searching for a female in estrus (capable of mating). Male raccoons will mate with one or several females during the mating season and will not play a part in the feeding or rearing of the offspring. The pregnant female will leave her den if denned up with offspring to find a new den for breeding her new litter. A breeding den may be ten to sixty feet up in a large older tree cavity. However, in urban areas they have even been known to den up in a chimney. Her gestation lasts about sixty-three days and she will give birth to three to four babies, called cubs or kits. A group of raccoons is referred to as a Nursery or Gaze. The kits are born with a light layer of fur which grows quickly and they begin to resemble the adults in about two weeks. At that time they will have “bandit masked” faces and bushy banded tails with alternating brown and tan stripes. At birth even though they are only four inches in length and weigh a mere two ounces by the end of the summer they will weigh between fifteen to twenty-five pounds. Their eyes are closed at birth and will begin to open between three to four weeks. The female will not leave them for the first few days and then she will begin leaving them for a short duration while she forages for food. When they are about six weeks old she may leave them for the entire night while she forages.
The kits at six weeks become inquisitive and will begin looking out of the opening where they have been denned up. They begin to make purring, growling and whistling sounds and occasionally a really curious one may even fall from the tree den. Most often the kits will not be injured and the returning mother raccoon will carry the kit back to the tree cavity den. She will carry the kit the same way a domestic cat carries its kitten, by the nape of the neck with its teeth. By ten weeks the kits are weaned and begin eating solid food and at three months will be foraging with the mother and finding their own food. They stay together throughout the summer and fall and will probably den up here for the winter until she leaves to begin a new family.
The northern raccoon’s scientific name is Procyon lotor, pronounced (pro.cee.on – lo.tor) which means dog-like washer. The common name raccoon is the English translation of a Powhatan name given to this mammal which was “aharah-koon-em” and translates to “one who rubs, scrubs and scratches with its hands. Raccoons may be observed as “washing” their food before eating if near water but will eat it anyway when no water is available. Raccoons spend most of the daylight hours resting in tree cavities or hollow logs. They prefer living in woodlands or wooded swamplands. They may even be found in urban areas living under a porch, in a culvert or unfortunately even in a house chimney.
Although they are normally nocturnal you may occasionally see one during the day depending on the weather or the need for food. Raccoons are in the Order of Carnivora (carnivores) however they are actually omnivores. Looking at the skull of a raccoon, which is rectangular in shape, you will see four types of teeth which include incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. Each of these teeth is necessary for the diverse diet of raccoons. In spring and summer, they will consume crayfish, worms, slugs, insects, nestlings, frogs, snails, turtles and turtle eggs, chicken and their eggs, in addition to berries and garden vegetables. A raccoon has been seen as an opportunist; when watched by a photographer, it was photographed sitting behind a snapping turtle and grabbing and eating each egg and as the turtle laid her eggs. In the fall acorns, beechnuts and corn are consumed in great quantities. In winter then when not “napping” and weather permitting they will forage for food sometimes raiding bird feeders or unsecured garbage containers.
Raccoon will often establish a communal bathroom where several of them deposit their scat. One could be found at the trunk of a tree or on a well-traveled path. Their scat usually contains seeds, insect remains, and crustacean parts. It is very important NOT to handle it or smell it, because it may contain parasites that are dangerous to humans. One possible parasite in Baylisacaris procyonis a roundworm, and its eggs are passed in feces of infected raccoons. Raccoons are fun to see and photograph, but keep in mind they are wild animals and should always be treated as such. Hope to see you on the winter trails, where I wander.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at Jmphoto8442@gmail.com