Which animal has hands with long-reaching and prying fingers like humans, making it one of the most dexterous of four-legged creatures? The answer: the arakun, or “one who scratches with his hands” in the Native American Algonquian language. Virginian colonists dropped the first letter from arakun and the name became rakun or raccoon, also known as Procyon lotor.

These feisty critters are smart and tenacious. Mostly nocturnal, raccoons find their late-night meals in water by scratching at crayfish and frogs hidden beneath rocks and plants. During the day they pluck rodents, raid nests for eggs, and, just like a bear, will dig up and eat the nests of ground-dwelling wasps, bees, and hornets. According to National Geographic, “Raccoons also eat fruit and plants, including those grown in human gardens and farms. They will even open garbage cans to dine on the contents.” Thus the nomenclature the masked bandit, also named for its black eye mask. As omnivores, raccoons eat almost anything, rolling or rubbing potential food to investigate it. In the spring and summer, raccoons store body fat for winter before hibernating or partially hibernating in dens they make in fallen logs, rock crevices, or even crawl spaces in houses. Springtime arouses polygamous males, and an average of four kits are born in the spring or early summer. In the wild, raccoons, who are preyed upon by coyotes, bobcats, hawks, eagles, and owls, tend to live only two to five years.

The four to six black rings on the raccoon’s bushy tail, which ends in a dark tip, is used for fat storage in winter and for balance while climbing or sitting. Another interesting body part is the animal’s hind feet, which can rotate up to 180 degrees, making it easier for the raccoon to climb down a tree headfirst or backwards. If you’re looking for raccoon footprints in mud or snow, you’ll see the hind prints, 3 to 4 inches long, and the front prints with shorter heel marks. Their forepaws look like human hands with toes that are long and separated like fingers, but without opposable thumbs. Both front and rear feet have five toes with long, non-retractable claws. The hind legs are longer than their front legs, giving the raccoon that hunched-back appearance when they walk. Raccoons are strong, slow (only occasionally reaching 15 mph), have keen sight and hearing, and can swim.

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Good luck trying to identify a raccoon by its sound for there are many, but you can listen to a variety of coos, calls, purrs, and chirps at websites like Soundboard and Soundjax; videos abound too. While it’s rare to see the masked bandit in the woods, one sure way to come eye-to-eye with one of these clever creatures is at night when they’re prowling neighborhoods in search of human food.

Have you had an encounter – rural or urban – with a raccoon? Tell us at editors@moonshineink.com.

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Eve Quesnel
Eve Quesnel has lived in Truckee for 25 years with her husband Bill, once-upon-a-time daughter Kim (now on her own), and three dogs (a true Tahoe-ite owns at least one dog). Her favorite pastimes are fussing in the yard, walking in the nearby woods, hiking in the high Sierra, and reading and writing. Quesnel teaches part time at Sierra College and loves getting a little moonshine energy on, to coax creative words to spill onto the pages of the best world-renowned newspaper in Tahoe, Moonshine Ink, of course.

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