Sunday, December 29, 2013

Raccoons well-suited for survival


Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, December 29, 2013

Jim McCormac

Edward Crump presided over Tennessee’s political machine for much of the first half of the 20th century. The former Memphis mayor, in campaigning against political foe Estes Kefauver, portrayed the Democratic challenger for a U.S. Senate seat as being “raccoonlike” and a “communist puppet."
In response, Kefauver wore a raccoon-skin cap when on the stump and stated, “I may be a pet coon, but I’m not Boss Crump’s pet coon.”

Kefauver won the 1948 election handily.

Being compared to a raccoon isn’t such a bad thing. It’s more flattering than being compared to a skunk.

Raccoons are abundant and range throughout Ohio. Close relatives of bears, they are instantly identifiable by their black bandit mask and ringed tail. A big one can weigh 35 pounds. The wily mammals occur in all habitats and may thrive best in citified landscapes.

Raccoons are consummate omnivores, meaning that they’ll eat almost anything. The meal plan includes our castoffs, as victims of plundered trash cans have learned.

The Algonquin Indian name for raccoon is aroughcoune, which means “He scratches with his hands.” These masked bandits indeed have handlike paws, and their prints are easily recognized along muddy creek banks. Raccoons use their appendages with great dexterity, and they can open refrigerator doors, gates and other impediments that would thwart most beasts.

They are great climbers and often spotted high in trees. To facilitate headfirst descents, a raccoon can rotate its hind paws 180 degrees.

In northern climes, raccoons go on autumnal food binges, packing on massive quantities of fat. Up to a third of a successful glutton’s body weight is blubber. So much fat is stored that a raccoon can ride out winter without eating, if need be. They don’t truly hibernate but will remain holed up in a den for extended periods during cold snaps. Come spring, a raccoon might weigh half of what it did at winter’s onset.

For such a seemingly bright animal, raccoons don’t make their own dens. They use tree cavities, rocky crevices, hollow logs and sometimes storm sewers. Motorists are sometimes startled to see two eyes glowing from a sewer’s grate, reflected by the car’s headlights.

Raccoons mate in late winter or early spring, and the female gives birth to as many as eight coonlets in April or May. They grow rapidly, and before long will be sneaking through the night plundering crayfish from creeks and raiding unprotected trash cans. The mincing humpbacked gait of a coon is unmistakable.

In the 1950s, ABC aired a TV series featuring Fess Parker as the coonskin-capped Davy Crockett. Sales of the furry headgear skyrocketed to 5,000 a day. By the mid-1970s, the raccoon was the most economically important North American fur bearer.

By the early 1980s, a prime pelt could fetch $30 — now, about $72. Today, exterminators probably make more money from raccoons than trappers do.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

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