Fatter, sassier, more sociable…Jude Isabella reveals how America’s rural raccoons became seasoned urbanites with a taste for French fries and jam doughnuts.
It’s about four in the morning when I’m startled awake by a thunderous crash below my window. I live in a leafy nook where city and nature meet, some 5km from downtown Victoria, capital of British Columbia.
Bleary-eyed, I peer out and spy the culprit: a masked rascal with glowing eyes. It’s Rocky, my pet name for the porky raccoon who lived in my garage before I gutted it for a renovation. Is this early wake-up call his revenge?
Almost everyone in urban North America has a raccoon story to tell. These adorable, ring-tailed troublemakers are über urbanites. Compared with their country cousins who forage in more natural settings, city raccoons are fatter – and, some would argue, sassier.
It’s possible that they also live longer and that their kits are more likely to survive to adulthood. In biology, that’s called success.
Going mad for maize
Common raccoons are cocker-spaniel-sized creatures that have outcompeted other native carnivores – mountain lions, coyotes and foxes – in the urban ecosystems of North America. They have enjoyed a long association with humans that, over time, has become ever more profitable for them.
For thousands of years First Nations people hunted raccoons for meat and fur. Their name comes from the Algonquin word arakunem, shortened and mispronounced by early English settlers in the eastern USA. It means ‘He who scratches with his hands’, though a more accurate interpretation might be ‘Royal pain in the butt’.
The ancient Maya civilisation of what’s now Mexico and Central America, for example, griped about these sticky-pawed maize thieves, and couldn’t trap and kill them fast enough.
Though the natural habitat of raccoons is forest near to water, fields of ripe maize are irresistible. But why do raccoons go mad for corn in particular? I asked Stan Gehrt, a wildlife biologist from Ohio State University, who has spent over 25 years studying raccoons.
“Raccoons will travel great distances for this delicacy,” he tells me. “There’s a short window of time when the corn is exactly ripe. They wait for that moment, then hit it really hard. It seems that they just love the taste.”
European settlers also helped raccoons to flourish, first by planting huge cornfields and building barns, then, in the early 20th century, by swapping their farmhouses for tenements.
A city might lack barns, but instead it offers countless attics and chimneys in which to den. And if a field of maize is good, an all-you-can-eat urban buffet is even better.
So, in a way, we can trace the predilections of the endearing scallywags now at large in American cities all the way back to the toil of those enterprising 18th-century farmers – and, beyond that, to the Maya.
Like any mammal, raccoons need shelter, food and water, and cities offer plenty of all three. Burbling outdoor water features mimic streams. Dumpsters and downtown pavements are perfect foraging grounds for omnivorous freegans. Empty lofts and chimneys are inviting to squatters that evolved to scamper up trees.
Couple this world of opportunity with nimble paws – hands, near enough – that can open an unlocked door, and it’s clear why urban habitats are ideal breeding grounds for the raccoon tribe.
Today, most North American metropolises have raccoon populations that dwarf those in the country. For example, it’s believed that the city of Toronto might harbour up to 50 times more raccoons than an area of the same size in the surrounding countryside.
The concrete jungle
“Cities are awesome places for raccoons to live,” explains Suzanne MacDonald, a comparative psychologist at York University in Toronto. “They have wonderful denning sites and yummy garbage – perfect for an animal that can eat pretty much anything.”
Only a few aspects of city life don’t seem to suit raccoons, she adds. “They don’t like loud noises, lights at night or used cat litter – cat urine is clearly a repellent.”
No wonder Rocky likes my yard. It’s quiet, yet only a stone’s throw from a school, where half-eaten cookies and apples are stuffed into rows of outdoor rubbish bins. One night, as I walked past, a guttural growl emanated from one of those overflowing bins. I bet I know who was inside!
To make the most of an ideal habitat, intraspecific warfare is a no-no – sociable city raccoons enjoy a life that resembles a continuously rocking neighbourhood block party. In the wilds, unrelated male raccoons will sometimes form gangs, but city types do so much more often.
Best friends forever
Rural females seldom hang out together, Gehrt says, but in cities he has seen unrelated ones behaving like girlfriends: they’re close for a few months, then act like they never knew each other.
“It’s just weird – a highly mysterious part of their behaviour,” the scientist muses. “It’s a classic example of how frustrating raccoons can be. They don’t follow any rules.”
For example, there’s the rule, common to most animals, that explicitly states: “No sharing food unless you are related.”
So far, research on raccoon social feeding behaviour is limited, though large feeding aggregations are frequently seen in built-up areas, says Gehrt; raccoons will chow down side by side without fighting – except when it comes to French fries, fried chicken and pastries.
“The absolute worst would be jam doughnuts,” Gehrt says. “There would be bloodshed.” If Homer Simpson were an animal, he’d clearly be a raccoon.
A willingness to share meals (jam doughnuts aside) has led to what we might call smart-growth. Rural raccoons average 15 animals per km2, while city animals average 125 per km2; the highest density recorded is 333 per km2.
They must be practically tripping over each other in Toronto, according to data collected by MacDonald. Last summer she led a pilot study tracking raccoons in three neighbourhoods in Toronto – the raccoon capital of the world.
Using marshmallows and cat food she lured five raccoons into traps, snapped radio-collars around their furry necks and released them. Then, each night from 9pm to 3am, her team patrolled the streets with a VHF antenna, uploading to a computer the GPS data recorded on the animals’ collars.
After six weeks of logging data, accumulating 1,100 geographic points per raccoon, MacDonald mapped her study subjects’ wanderings. Each city sophisticate stayed within a strict three-block radius.
“Their ranges appear to be defined by main roads: ‘raccies’ generally don’t cross major thoroughfares,” MacDonald says. “This is smart, because that’s the number-one way in which they’re killed nowadays.”
Predators determine the movements of most species and, in urban environments, vehicles are the main raccoon predator. Dogs, which can kill a raccoon, are rarely a threat in the city.
My dear old hound would chase Rocky in slow motion. It was embarrassing to watch her shuffle after her ‘prey’ while he took a full minute to dither over which tree to climb. Then Rocky just sat there and gazed down as the old girl looked upwards and barked her head off.
Even coyotes, formidable hunters now moving into urban habitats, fail to inspire fear in raccoons, according to Gehrt. His team has filmed the two species feeding happily alongside each other.
Timid country cousins
Raccoons are comfortable with interspecies hobnobbing – especially with humans. They’re also naturally curious, yet in 20 years of hiking and camping I have never seen a raccoon out in the backwoods.
Hardly surprising, says neuroscientist Andrew Iwaniuk at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. These behavioural differences are commonly seen, for example in American robins: urban dwellers tolerate humans, whereas backwoods birds don’t.
Urban raccoons are brave and bold, country raccoons are shy and retiring.
“On my country explorations I only see signs of raccoons. No one ever spots them in the bush,” Iwaniuk says. But forget to put the lid on your rubbish bin and the neighbourhood raccoon is there in two minutes. It can hear a tiny piece of meat hit the bottom, and knows which day of the week your rubbish is collected.
Eat-in or to go?
“One time when I was living in Maryland I forgot to replace the lid on my garbage can,” Iwaniuk recalls. “I went to put out the trash and this fat ‘raccy’ was sitting in the bottom of the can; it just reached up with outstretched arms to claim the garbage bag.”
That is truly bold – and bold fares well in the city. Bold animals are quick to explore a new environment and less risk-averse.
In addition to being more in-your-face, city slickers also differ noticeably from their rustic relatives in their preferred menu. In a natural setting raccoons are true locavores – they eat whatever is available on their doorstep at any moment. In spring, insects, earthworms and ducklings make for delicious meals.
Summer brings berries, nuts, frogs, turtles, grasshoppers and crickets. Maize and fruit are autumn foods, along with maimed fowl shot by hunters, while acorns are plentiful in winter. Coastal raccoons are big on crustaceans – biologists counted 288 legs from 36 crabs in one scat found by the sea.
Fat and fecund
Despite this healthy diet, country raccoons are lean. And being thin has its downsides: they produce fewer kits overall than their chunkier city counterparts. Urban butterballs like Rocky pack on the pounds earlier in the year, so they’re probably breeding earlier, too.
A quiet rural lifestyle also allows the furry hicks to nestle into winter dens where they can relax and slow down their metabolisms, undisturbed until spring and in sync with their seasonal breeding cycle.
Rocky does not get to relax. In the rainy Pacific Northwest, even on a chilly January night, I hear him wrestling with the tarp on my shed roof.
In frigid Toronto the city never sleeps, so neither do its raccoons, since they often get disturbed. Seasonal commitment to breeding might be a thing of the past, too; modern city raccoons may mate at any time.
So if Rocky were Roxy and a mum, living an optimal urban life, she might well be twice as fecund as her rural sisters. If she outlives her country cousins, too (we know she does, at least in the Chicago area), and edges past her species’ average lifespan of four years, then the Rockys and Roxys of the world owe us something for this evolutionary boost.
A peaceful night’s sleep would be a start.
RACCOONS IN THE CITY
- Attics make ideal spots for dens. Raccoons can squeeze through holes only tens of centimetres wide, under eaves or by heating ducts.
- A mother raccoon creates a nest the size of a frisbee or slightly larger, using paper, card, foam or plastic – anything that offers insulation.
- A litter of three kits is the norm for an urban mother.
- Raccoons don’t always scatter droppings around houses – they tend to use community latrines – but their dark, tubular faeces smell vile.
RACCOONS IN THE COUNTRY
- Top picks for rural dens are tree cavities. Cottonwood trees, which rot from the inside out, are popular.
- Raccoons will nest in either trunks or branches, if wide enough (at least 60cm in diameter). They choose holes up to 30m above the ground.
- A ‘des res’ is a tree close to a river, stream, swamp or lake.
- The den is lined with pieces of crumbling bark and sawdust from the tree, not leaf litter.
- Mothers typically raise two kits, fewer than their larger city cousins.
ALIEN INVADERS IN JAPAN
A zoo break by raccoons in Inuyama city in 1962 led to the species’ colonisation of Japan. Since then the masked marauders have spread north to the island of Hokkaido– and south to the isolated Okinawa archipelago – with a little help from Japanese animators.
Rascal the Raccoon, a hit TV cartoon screened in 1977, inspired many Japanese to import raccoons as pets. Soon, though, the animals’ public persona morphed from mega-cute into mega-menace: the varmints opened breeding cages or were dumped by fed-up owners, and migrated to farms and cities.
Now raccoons are seen as pests in Japan: their antics prompted the country’s Invasive Alien Species Act of 2005.
Today, raccoons climb air vents and den in temples and shrines considered national treasures. Byodo–in, a World Heritage-listed Buddhist temple in Kyoto, is just one cultural wonder under assault. Under the Act, these furry, masked intruders can be trapped and humanely put to sleep.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Raccoon intelligence seems to be comparable to that of domestic cats. In tests, they can figure out that three grapes are better than two or one, but they don’t really count. Nor are raccoons ideal research subjects: they’re easily distracted.
- Wild raccoons are frequent zoo bandits. At Toronto Zoo, they habitually break into the raccoon exhibit – perhaps for free grub and subsidised health care? Smart. But not smart enough to know that they’ll be neutered before being released.