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This Masked Bandit is up to no good

By Barry Baird

Raccoon photo by Dorie Parsons.Do you awake suddenly at night to the pitter patter of little feet on the roof? Do you rise and shine the next morning to discover that your trash has been spread all over the back porch? Who could be the culprit?

The raccoon (Procyon lotor) or coon may very well be the culprit. In the movies raccoons are portrayed as cute, cuddly creatures with somewhat mischievous personalities. In the real world these little animals can cause big problems. Raccoons have become common invaders of homes and gardens where they find the necessities to survive readily available in rural and urban areas.

Their behaviors and living habits have allowed them to frequent these areas while often remaining unidentified but certainly not unnoticed.

Raccoons are stocky, medium-sized mammals about 2 to 3 feet long, nose to tail, weighing 10 to 30 pounds with long, bushy tails that have five to seven black rings. They are usually brownish-black in color with tones of gray mixed in the face and underbelly.

However, some raccoons have undertones of yellow, brown, or cinnamon in their fur. The conspicuous masked bandit appearance comes from a white face with black patches surrounding each eye.

Raccoons are omnivorous mammals and opportunistic feeders that forage primarily on plant and animal foods, including fruits, berries, nuts, corn, crawfish, fish, clams, snails, frogs, insects, turtles, eggs, small rodents and birds. They are nocturnal, which means they are most active during the night hours.

In natural settings raccoons will build dens in hollow trees, logs, culverts, brush piles and other secluded places absent of sunlight. Breeding occurs anywhere from December to August, with the peak being around February and March. Litter sizes usually range from two to four young.

Raccoons frequent anywhere the opportunity exists for an easy meal.

These may be obvious places such as gardens offering an abundance of sweet corn or back porches where pet food is kept outside and where trash cans are commonly left unattended. They also tend to frequent garages, attics, sheds and other places where they can find accessible crawl space.

Most problems occur when females build dens or are in search of potential den sites. In urban and suburban areas, attics and chimneys tend to be preferred locations. In the entrance areas, damage may be done to shingles, fascia boards or ventilators. Once inside, they may rip out insulation or destroy heating and air conditioning ducts. These places may become a frequent dwelling or permanent residence and may be accompanied by stained ceilings and foul smells.

Most problems caused by raccoons can be solved with common sense. When experiencing damage, examine the frequented area by thoroughly searching for any accessible crawl space. Block these spaces with boards, hardware cloth, sheet metal, or heavy screen. Bring pet food inside at night or feed pets in the morning so that food is not left outside overnight.

Secure garbage can lids and do not place table scraps outside where animals can get to them. It is best to use electric fencing to prevent garden problems. The fence can be as big or as small as you would like, making this method very efficient.

Raccoons can be trapped using cage-type live traps baited with sweet corn, sardines, fish-flavored cat food or even marshmallows. Foot catch and body grip (Conibear) traps as well as snares can be effective in removing raccoons. In Alabama, law prohibits the use of snares and body grip traps with a jaw spread of larger than 5 inches from being used on land.

If you are in an area where capture of non-target species is likely, box or special foot-holding traps such as the Little Griz Getter or Egg Trap should be considered. Where raccoons are a problem, hunting during legal season dates should be encouraged where practical. There are no repellents, toxicants or fumigants registered for raccoons.

With urban sprawl increasing each year, the gap between where the blacktop ends and where the wild outdoors begins is rapidly decreasing. If you have not already encountered a raccoon, it is very possible that you will in the future.

Always remember when encountering a wild animal they are just thatówild animals. Many, including raccoons, carry rabies or a host of other diseases and parasites that can be passed on to humans. Avoid direct contact with these animals. Never attempt to touch, pet, or feed animals even if they appear friendly.

In Alabama, those with the inclination to handle raccoon problems themselves, can contact a Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries District Office first to determine if a permit is needed. That office can also put you in contact with professionals who can help solve the problem.

Additional information may be obtained from the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management at www.icwdm.org or from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's Wildlife Damage Management website at www.aces.edu/forestry/awdm/resources regarding more specific techniques.

-- By Barry Baird, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

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