Raccoon, a small, furred animal found in the Western Hemisphere from southern Canada to Paraguay. A raccoon can be recognized by its ringed tail and the black "mask" on its fox-like face. The playful, cunning common raccoon of North America figures in many of the folk tales of the southern United States. It shows little fear of humans, and the young are often caught and reared as pets.

RaccoonsRaccoons often dip food into water before eating it.

The common raccoon ranges probably no farther south than Panama. It may be from 25 to 35 inches (64 to 89 cm) long and weigh more than 40 pounds (18 kg). Its fur has long, coarse, black-tipped guard hairs, ranging from light to dark gray. The under-fur is yellowish brown. There are black rings around the animal's eyes, and its muzzle is white. The short bushy tail is gray or yellowish with a black tip, and is circled by several black rings.

Do Raccoons Wear Masks?

Raccoons don’t wear masks, but it sure looks as if they do. Raccoons have wide patches of black fur around their eyes and across their cheeks. This striking pattern looks just like a bandit’s black mask.

A raccoon has other markings that make it easy to identify, too. Its long, bushy tail has 5 to 10 black rings around it. The tip of the tail is dark in color. Like a grizzly bear’s fur, a raccoon’s fur is grizzled, or streaked with gray. It also has flecks of yellow or brown in it. Raccoon fur is long and coarse. Thick fur makes a raccoon look bigger than it really is.

Common raccoons live in hollow trees or rocky dens, often near water. In colder areas they live in burrows. Raccoons usually come out only at night to look for food. They are often a pest to farmers and gardeners because they eat poultry, grain, and fruit; but they often help the farmer by ridding the farm of rats and mice. They also feed on fish, shellfish, crayfish, frogs, turtles, and salamanders. Before eating they often hold the food in their long-fingered paws and dip it into the water several times. Raccoons are excellent swimmers.

A raccoon gives birth to a litter of three to six young in the spring. The young are born blind, but open their eyes in about three weeks. When they are about two months old, the mother takes them with her on her nightly rambles. Raccoons reach full growth in about a year and may live to be 10 or 12 years old.

In the southern United States raccoons are hunted for food and for sport. In their northern range raccoons have long, thick fur that is valued for coats and trimming. The fur is usually sheared. Unsheared raccoon coats were popular in the United States in the 1920's. American pioneers wore "coon-skin" jackets and caps. The caps were fashioned with the animal's tail hanging down in the back.

Who Are Enemies of Raccoons?

Like most animals living in the wild, raccoons have many enemies. Their enemies include cougars, jaguars, coyotes, foxes, and some kinds of owls. But their worst enemies of all are humans and dogs.

Adult raccoons can be ferocious when they are cornered. They have sharp teeth, which they use to defend themselves. They are quite capable of putting up a good fight. And their thick fur helps protect them against bites and other types of attacks.

Raccoons are quick runners, but they are not always fast enough to flee from large enemies. But with their sharp claws, raccoons are good tree climbers. If they see or smell an enemy, they can escape by scampering up a tree.

The crab-eating raccoon of South America is dark red, but it is marked like the North American raccoon. It has the typical black mask, white muzzle, and black-and-white ringed tail. It is found chiefly in the Amazon River basin, but ranges from Venezuela to Paraguay.

Do Crab-Eating Raccoons Eat Only Crabs?

No, but crabs are a favorite food of crab-eating raccoons. Besides crabs, these raccoons eat crayfish, frogs, and other freshwater animals. But, like their northern cousins, they’ll eat just about anything if they get hungry enough.

Although crab-eating raccoons and northern raccoons are a lot alike, there are differences between them. Crab-eating raccoons are semiaquatic (sehm ee uh KWAT ihk). This means that they spend much of their time in the water. Crab-eating raccoons also have thinner fur. This makes them appear more slender. And their tails are less bushy.

Crab-eating raccoons have stronger claws than northern raccoons do. They also have stronger molars, or teeth used for grinding. This may be nature’s way of helping crab-eating raccoons crack the crabs and other shellfish they love to eat.

Among close relatives of the raccoon are the ring-tailed cat of the southwestern United States and Mexico, the coati of Mexico and South America, and the kinkajou of tropical South America.