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The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is one of Indiana’s most likable mammals. While many Hoosiers have difficulty identifying a Franklin’s ground squirrel or some other small mammal, the raccoon is a stranger to none. It raids our sweet corn patches, gives the hound dog a run for his money on star-filled autumn nights, and its delicate human-like foot prints are embedded along countless streams, rivers, lakes and ponds scattered across the Hoosier landscape.
Raccoons are native only to the North American continent. Adults weigh from 12 to 25 pounds, are distinctly marked across the eyes with a black mask, and have a bushy tail with alternating rings of light and dark fur. Their coat is a mixture of grizzled gray, brown and black. There can be considerable variation in color even among littermates. Some appear almost solid black, and others may have a yellowish cast. A few albino raccoons also occur. Raccoons are nocturnal and usually spend daylight hours at rest.
Raccoons occur statewide. They are most numerous where a good mixture of woodlands, cropland and shallow water are found. The northeastern section of Indiana, blessed with numerous glacial ponds, is a raccoon stronghold. The fertile farmland of central Indiana is also home for many raccoons. The heavily forested south central hills and northwestern prairie regions are less attractive to raccoons. Under ideal conditions, raccoon levels can approach one per acre. Even in less favorable habitat, they still may occur at the rate of about one raccoon per 40 acres.
Most mating occurs in January or February, and the male assumes no part in family life. Most raccoons are born in cavity-forming trees such as maples, sycamore or beech. If den tree sites are not readily available, a female may utilize abandoned barn lofts, rock outcroppings, ground burrows or even the attic or chimney of someone’s home as a place to give birth to her young. Litters are usually born in April or May and range in size from one to nine, although the average is four. By mid-June, most young raccoons accompany their mother on food searches and begin to learn survival skills.
Raccoons are opportunists. A variety of plant and animal foods are eaten. Raccoon are adept frog hunters, relish crayfish, and dine on turtle and bird eggs, insects, small mammals and sometimes domestic fowl. Their raids on sweet corn patches are legendary. If these foods are not readily available, field corn, beechnuts, acorns and other mast species will be found on the menu. If water is nearby, the raccoon will appear to be washing its food; however, the animal is actually kneading and tearing at the food, feeling for matter which should be rejected. Wetting its paws enhances the raccoon’s touch. If water is not nearby, the raccoon will forego this ritual.
The cries of a hound in pursuit of raccoon have pierced frost-chilled Hoosier skies ever since the early pioneer arrived in Indiana. Night hunters account for about 75 percent of the raccoon harvest each fur season. Raccoon hunting involves comradeship and hearty competition between hunting partners and their dogs. Hound owners knowing the terrain and voices of their dogs follow the progress and problems of the chase as they unravel the performance of the raccoon and success of each dog.
Raccoons are normally curious and easily trapped. Two common sets for a raccoon are the mink bait-stake set and fox dirt hole set. Fish is used as bait to lure raccoons. Stream or ditch banks as well as paths commonly used by raccoons are productive trapping sites.
When Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory, raccoons were forest dwellers of limited abundance. During the Roaring ’20s, when raccoon coats were a craze, pelt prices soared and raccoon numbers crashed. This decline resulted in the purchase of raccoons by the Conservation Department and private clubs for restocking. Breeding stock was purchased from other states and raccoons were raised for release. In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, raccoon numbers increased throughout the Midwest, even in areas where stocking had not been attempted. In spite of isolated disease outbreaks, primarily canine distemper, a high raccoon population has been maintained since the 1960s. Studies of raccoon ecology have been initiated on state-owned marshland, national forest land and private farmland since that time. The raccoon harvest is monitored annually, and yearly surveys statewide abundance have been maintained. Evidence gathered concerning raccoons indicates this mammal had found its niche in our modern environment and is here to stay.