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Raccoons in the Spring

Why do you see them in the daytime and how to know if the baby you found is an orphan.

Although most of you know that I have spent many years studying bobcats and have since been concerned with gray foxes, you may not know that I conducted my PhD dissertation and post-doctoral research on raccoons. During my post doc, I also worked with striped skunks, opossums, and coyotes, but the raccoon work was the gist of my project. So, I worked intimately with raccoons for over 6 years. For 3 of those years, I radiotracked nearly 60 raccoons both day and night.

My intensive radiotelemetry allowed me to note some interesting raccoon behaviors. Of these, I would like to discuss two aspects of their springtime activities. First, you may have noticed, either directly or on trail cameras, the activity of some raccoons during the day. This should have been particularly evident from mid-late April through mid-May. Most raccoons have their litters during this time. Newborn raccoons, as well as most "altricial" young (those born sightless, naked, and essentially helpless) do not have the ability to thermoregulate on their own for several weeks. Just as a reminder, thermoregulation is the internal process that maintains our core temperature at the appropriate level, even under environmentally chilly conditions. Because nights during this time can be cold and temperatures may even dip below freezing, female raccoons, being the excellent mothers that they are, essentially spend the entire night in their natal dens to keep their young warm. Consequently, the normally nocturnal raccoon must come out during the day for at least a few hours to forage. Lactating or nursing females require a great deal of energy. They cannot go without food for multiple days, so they must be active during the day while its warmer.

The sight of a raccoon during the day typically makes us question whether the raccoon is sick. Our first concern is that it could be rabid and therefore displaying bizarre behavior. While it is true that sick raccoons will wander around during the day, they also tend to lose their fear of humans. I have experienced several instances of sick raccoons approaching me. One even rummaged through my backpack looking for food while I was siting on the ground next to it. In all these cases, the raccoons were diagnosed with canine distemper. Oddly, distemper causes strange behaviors in raccoons that mimic those of rabies. Disclaimer #1 – never approach or touch a wild animal under any circumstances, especially if it is displaying little fear of humans, because rabies is always a possibility. This is true for all mammals, not just raccoons, and rabies is not a disease that you want to take chances with. Nursing raccoons that come out during the day retain their normal fear of humans, and apart from being out in the daylight, they act perfectly normal. You may glance them during the day or capture them on your trail cameras, but you will not be able to approach them. This is normal behavior.

After the young raccoons become fully furred and largely mobile (which typically occurs around this time in mid-June), the mother starts to take them on nightly forays away from their natal den. These trips start out short and lengthen with time until the young travel with their mother all night. It is not unusual for a baby raccoon to become separated from their mother during these forays. The baby typically hunkers down during the day and waits for mom. Again, being the good mothers that they are, the mothers will travel largely the same route, will hear the cries of their missing offspring, and the family will be reunited. Thus, if you find a young raccoon that appears to be abandoned, the best course of action is to leave it alone and note the location. You can place the baby in a box and leave it some water, especially if the day is hot. Disclaimer #2 – young raccoons at this age can already be aggressive and the youngster could be sick, so wear thick leather gloves and wash your hands well if you handle the baby. Of course, if the youngster is hurt or otherwise in considerable distress, call a wildlife rehabilitator for additional advice right away. However, most often the babe is healthy, but alone. There is an excellent chance that its mom will find it the following night. You can return to the location the next day to ensure that the baby is gone. This situation common enough that many rehabilitators will not take an orphaned raccoon until you've waited 24 hours for the mother to return for the baby.

My next blog will be very soon and will be concerned with "orphaned" fawns, so sign up for new blog alerts by entering your email address on the main Blog page (click All Posts above).

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