Get to know your backyard bandits

This time around we’re going to talk raccoons, those roly-poly masked bandits of the forest and towns.

The word raccoon is a Powhatan word meaning “washes with hands.” While highly intelligent and curious, they can become a nuisance in urban areas. They are native to North America, but they have become a real problem in Japan due to the importing of them and then the critters either escaping or being released.

While their front paws are not really hands, the ability of their “thumb” and “little finger” to reach across the palm does enable them to open doors, jars, bottles, latches and to untie knots.

They are considered omnivores but with an opportunistic diet, they will eat almost anything they can get their paws on, including: birds, eggs, fish, frogs, fruit, insects, nuts, seeds, or whatever is in your garbage can.

They will also eat cat food, as I found out when I accidentally left some on the back deck and caught one having a good meal. Silly thing looked up saw me and continued eating until I rattled the door handle and it took off. Not fast, as he had a bit a trouble getting through the spindles. Seems he hadn’t missed many meals.

We lost a tree in the front yard and when they cut it off about 12 feet from the ground a mamma and four babies hightailed it to the back of the house. We found the babies by the deck, but mom was missing. Leaving them alone, when we came back about half an hour later, they were gone. Mama went out and found a new home.

Here’s a few facts you can throw out at the next dull staff meeting. Raccoons can get 50 percent of their body weight in fat for use during the winter; they do not hibernate but will spend long periods sleeping in their dens.

Their dens are mostly hollow trees and abandoned burrows, but they will live almost anywhere: old cars, sheds and barns are used. They may have more than one den and will share it with other raccoons.

The average size is about 12 inches tall, up to 38 inches long and weighing from 14 to 23 pounds. They can live up to 16 years in the wild, but most don’t make it beyond the second year.

The female usually gives birth in April or May, with up to seven being born, but the average is around four. Females can mate at about a year old. The young will hang around till almost a year, then they take off on their own. Some young females have been known to hang around mom for a bit longer while the males sometimes form “bachelor” groups.

They are good climbers and a fall of up to 40 feet doesn’t seem to bother them. Raccoons are strong swimmers but don’t really like to do that unless necessary. If necessary, they can run up to 15 miles per hour.

While some people would love to have one as a pet, it is not advisable. They are wild, undomesticated animals no matter how cute they are. I’m sure that a lot a people close to my age remember the book Rascal by Sterling North from 1963. It’s a story about a young boy who brings home a baby raccoon and the adventures that followed.

However, the big problem is that they do carry diseases that are harmful to humans, some of which can cause abdominal pain and lung problems. The worst is one known as raccoon roundworms (a microscopic parasite): in humans it has been known to cause blindness and even death. While they can carry rabies, there are very few cases recorded.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfield