While walking in the swamp recently, a raccoon ran across my path. It quickly climbed high into a tree, and stayed there, looking down at me.
I’m familiar with raccoons in my backyard, raccoons in alleys, raccoons getting into the trash. But I wondered, what’s it like to be a a wild raccoon living at the Phinizy Swamp?
The most interesting thing about raccoons to me is how adaptable they are. They are quite smart and are good at learning how to work new situations to their advantage. Their Latin name is Procyon lotor, which more or less means “doglike animal that washes a lot” (they are actually a little more closely related to bears than dogs). They are native to forests and waterways all over North America, though they may well have originated in the Southeast. So you could say that this raccoon that I saw is in its most native habitat – in a forest/wetlands area in Georgia.
Raccoons are omnivores, and they do their best to get a varied diet. In the swamp, they are probably eating plant parts such as nuts and fruits, eggs from birds’ nests, worms and crustaceans and other invertebrates from soil and water areas, smaller vertebrates, and even carrion. In other words, they sample widely from everything available to them in a forest/wetland habitat.
The “washing” behavior isn’t fully understood. It may be somewhat instinctive and derived from the raccoon’s origins as a hunter along waterways. The raccoon’s skin on its forepaws is extremely sensitive, and seems to become more so when it is moistened.
A raccoon’s rear paws are also special. Unlike a cat’s, a raccoon’s back paws can rotate backwards as the animal descends a tree – so the raccoon that I saw could as easily run down the tree trunk as it ran up. Wild raccoons tend to sleep and nest in trees.
In really cold winter weather, raccoons can go into a state called “winter rest”. It’s not hibernation – their heart rate drops, but their body temperature stays normal. If the weather warms up, a raccoon can quickly come out of winter rest and get moving again.
A raccoon in the wild lives for two to three years, usually. In captivity, raccoons live a more catlike lifespan. Most wild raccoons are killed by disease or by getting run over by an automobile when they cross a road. The natural predators for the raccoon I saw would be bobcats, coyotes, and the larger birds of prey.
Finally, raccoons are most active at night, but it isn’t that unusual to see them during the day. They are just so adaptable in their behaviors that almost any rule you could cite about them has exceptions.