Monday, February 25, 2013

Adirondack Wildlife: Rambling Raccoons

800px-Raccons_in_a_treeThere is a biological alarm clock within adult raccoons that is genetically programmed to go off during the final days of February and the first week or two of March. Despite a covering of snow on the ground that may hinder travel, these masked, ring-tailed marauders exit the comforts of their den following sunset for the next several weeks in an attempt to locate members of the opposite sex.

Late winter in the Adirondacks is when the breeding urge strikes this familiar forest dweller; and this period of activity can be quite extensive if the temperature remains in the 20’s at night, especially for males that want to engage in as many reproductive encounters as possible.

When a raccoon scours an area for food in autumn, it makes a mental note of the location of other raccoon encounters, or a scent trail made by an individual of the opposite sex. Upon waking at this time of year, the males travel to these sites in an attempt to track down any potential breeding partners. Like a dog, the raccoon has an exceptionally keen sense of smell and can home in on a specific odor that is present in the surroundings. If the surface of the snow is still moist following a day when the temperature climbed into the mid to upper 30’s, the raccoon’s nose will be able to detect the scent of any nearby individual and follow it back to its source.

Even though the odor of food may also be present in the air, a male focuses his attention on first finding a mate rather than eating. After breeding, both animals may eat if a source of food is close by, however; nourishment is not the primary concern of this mammal as March begins.

Following a week or two of activity, raccoons retreat to their separate dens and fall back to sleep for roughly another month or more, depending on weather. If unseasonably mild air settles over the region for a prolonged period in March, as it did last year, this animal remains actively searching for carrion and other items to eat as its mating urge subsides.

People that spend time outdoors at this time of year are likely to come across a set or two of raccoon tracks in the snow. In some sections of the Park, the population of this nocturnal scavenger is quite high, and sightings can be common if there is a source of food readily available, like an open garbage can, a mass of seeds under a well stocked bird feeder, or an unenclosed compost pile that has had numerous table scraps added to it throughout the winter.

Although it is enjoyable to watch a raccoon as it comes onto a deck, climbs a nearby tree, or tries to access seeds from a bird feeder, care should always to taken to avoid contact with this animal as the threat of raccoon rabies is very real in some sections of the Park. 2012 saw the highest number of reported raccoon rabies cases in parts of northern Essex County and in some areas of Clinton County. Just because a raccoon has been in a deep state of slumber for the past three month does not mean that it is free of rabies.

As a general rule, the cases of rabies within the Blue Line have been confined to areas at lower elevations. Should a healthy raccoon have an encounter with one that is rabid, and contract the disease, it is unlikely that it will expend the energy needed to travel to higher terrain. Since the central sections of the Park are difficult for a rabid raccoon to access, and have a more hostile climate, rabies has not developed in our higher elevation wilderness areas. Hamilton County, for example, has not reported a single case of raccoon rabies.

It is sometimes difficult to tell if an animal is infected with this deadly virus. Some people believe that an animal is carrying the disease if it appears to be acting abnormally, such as if a nocturnal creature is out during the daytime. This is not always a valid assumption, as some night dwellers come out during the day if they have been disturbed by an intruder, like a predator or a swarm of biting bugs that have recently hatched around their den.

At this time of year, it is a mating urge that is driving the raccoon to leave its den and visit surrounding areas in search of a breeding partner. Should the scent of a female in heat be detected as morning arrives, the male abandons any attempt to return to its den and begins to track down the individual in need of his reproductive services.

Please be aware that a dead raccoon can still harbor the rabies virus, especially during the cooler months of the year when the rate of decomposition is slow. Should a dead raccoon be seen on the side of a highway, it is always best to stay away and let a creature, like a crow or raven eat the remains, as they are unable to contract this dreaded disease.

Photo by Flickr user garyjwood via Wikimedia.


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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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