Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Adirondack Wildlife in Winter: The Raccoon

All mammals experience difficulty sleeping when it becomes too warm. Because of an insulating layer of fat and an exceptionally thick, dense coat of fur, this temperature is far lower for members of our wildlife community in winter than during summer. From Thanksgiving through early April, several successive nights with the air hovering around the freezing point is warm enough to cause the raccoon to stir from its prolonged winter slumber and emerge from its den. If the wind is light and there is no precipitation falling, this familiar nocturnal marauder begins to explore the surrounding area for anything edible.

Like the black bear and skunk, the raccoon experiences a type of winter dormancy known as carnivorean lethargy. Throughout the autumn, these creatures ingest large quantities of food in order to develop substantial deposits of fat. As weather conditions deteriorate with the onset of winter, the raccoon settles into a sheltered spot, often in a large chamber of a standing tree several dozen feet above the forest floor. Around the towns and villages of the Park, the raccoon is known to use enclosures inside an unused garage or barn or the attic of a camp or seasonal home.

Unlike a true hibernator, such as the bat, jumping mouse and woodchuck, the raccoon does not experience a substantial drop in its metabolism during this period of inactivity. While its heart rate, level of respiration and body temperature do decline, the amount which they decrease is small when compared to the rates of those mammals that hibernate. Because the brain of the raccoon does not shut down during its form of torpor, it can awaken more easily than a true hibernator should its space be invaded by an intruder or thermal conditions around it warm significantly.

During mild spells, the raccoon takes advantage of any edible items that it happens to detect in the nearby surroundings. The winterkilled remains of creatures unable to tolerate the shortage of food and the harsh weather of the winter season are a prime source of food for this opportunistic scavenger. The keen sense of smell which the raccoon possesses also enables it to locate numerous plant items, like a cluster of tree seeds or beechnuts that would be passed over by other similar size animals that more specifically target small game. With a limited amount of snow on the forest floor, the raccoon can more easily plunder the caches created by mice and voles than during a more typical winter. A raid on the nest of any squirrel that happens to fall within the reach of this skilled climber is also possible as the raccoon prowls for food in late winter.

Along with its quest for food, the raccoon also seeks out the location of other raccoons at this time of year. In the Adirondacks, males usually exit their den by the first week of March, regardless of weather conditions to find breeding partners. Mating several weeks before the equinox causes the young to be born during the first half of May. This is the time when breeding frogs and salamanders become fairly easy prey for this sharp-clawed critter. An influx of such protein enriched food enables the female to nurse her newborn babies with an adequate supply of milk. Later in May there are painted turtle eggs and nesting waterfowl to maintain the developing raccoon family with the nutrients needed for growth.

While some mating might occur prior to the first week of March, most females are not receptive quite yet. This prevents the young from being born too early in spring when a mild February causes these animals to stir from their sleep.

A light deposit of snow almost every night over the past week has not been sufficient to warrant shoveling the driveway, or going back country skiing; however, the fresh covering of powder has been perfect for observing animal tracks. The unmistakable footprints produced by the long-toed raccoon have been encountered numerous times around my home as our nighttime temperatures this past week have been more reminiscent of early April than mid February. While the calendar indicates that we are still in the depths of winter, the weather pattern that has taken hold is indicating it is time for sleeping animals to awaken. It is very much like having too many covers over your bed when someone has failed to turn down the heat at night. Inevitably, the discomfort forces you to get up and cool down a little, and while you are up, you might just as well visit the kitchen for a quick snack before heading back to sleep.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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