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The size, hunched shape, and slightly awkward walk were clues, but the fluffy ringed tail clinched it: a raccoon was purposely ambling across the street in our edge-of-town neighborhood.

Although I couldn’t see this one’s face, I know the raccoons’ iconic black mask above a perky nose is what makes them adorable. …which can get them in trouble by tempting imprudent human interactions.

All twenty-plus subspecies of raccoons are native to North America, but they have been introduced to parts of Europe and Japan -- some purposefully released after being brought into the regions as pets. (In addition to being unwise to keep raccoons as pets, in Oregon it is illegal to do so.)

The neighborhood raccoon I saw recently was out at dusk. Mainly nocturnal, raccoons feed primarily in the evening, usually hiding and resting during broad day. Like bears (to whom they were once believed to be related) and others, raccoons are classified as carnivores. But raccoons are behaviorally omnivores: about a third of their diet is plant material; more than half of the remaining two-thirds of overall raccoon diet is comprised of invertebrates, such as worms, insects, mollusks; the remainder of their diet is small vertebrates, such as amphibians, reptiles, and fish, and bird eggs.

In the wild, raccoons den in hollow logs and trees, and sometimes under and alongside rocks; around people, they’ve been known to den in buildings -- in corners of barns and in basements and attics, for examples.

Although they have good hearing, excellent sense of smell, and fair eyesight, their most important sense is that of touch: raccoon “hands” are extremely sensitive and agile. In fact, the English “raccoon” is derived from a Native American name that refers to the mammal’s habit of using its hands.

Raccoons handle their food at length, rather than just biting it, and it is said that raccoons “wash” their food before eating it. The common name for our animal in several other languages often include “washer”; even the scientific name for raccoon, Procyon lotor, is Latinized Greek and Latin for “before-dog” and “washer.”  However, it’s unclear why raccoons dip food in water or rub it in water. The hypothesis that raccoons have little saliva and need to moisten their food has recently been disproven. (Raccoon hands are more sensitive in water, and it’s possible they handle the food in water to feel it better. Perhaps food tastes better moistened. Or such behavior might just be habit.)

Raccoons are very intelligent and highly adaptable, and they readily move in amongst humans in search of food or dens.

Years ago, my parents had neighbors on the central Oregon Coast who thought the parents and young raccoons that they watched eating their dog’s left-over food were cute. So they put out more dog food just for the raccoons. Apparently, that family had cousins. Lots of cousins. In short order the humans were feeding about two dozen raccoons and going through a 40 lb. bag of dry dog food a week. In addition, if the humans spent the day planting bulbs, the raccoons spent the night digging them up and eating them.

Eventually, the human family had to own up to their error and they cut the raccoon families off their rations. The raccoons finally dispersed, but not until they made their displeasure known by doing more damage to the yard and by digging at the corners of the house looking for more food.

Tearing up the yard and scratching the house are the least of the worries for people with raccoons. Raccoons can be major agricultural pests, raiding orchards, gardens, and cornfields. Raccoons can also stand up for themselves, and there are occasional reports of raccoons killing pet cats and dogs, and – rarely -- rushing at the pets’ owners. Raccoons carry rabies and a wide host of other germs and parasites, and their latrines can be hotbeds of disease.

The start of winter’s colder weather and sparser food can drive many wildlife to our yards and homes as they seek shelter and sustenance.

While I sincerely appreciate these remarkable animals, I was happy to note this one was heading for the woods away from our house.

For information on how to arrange a gift certificate of an exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541-267-4027, mgiles@wavecrestdiscoveries.com, or www.facebook.com/wavecrestdiscoveries. Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome. www.wavecrestdiscoveries.com

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