Raccoons are skilled climbers, curious and yes, meddlesome. They are fortunate to also be charismatic and cute and that sometimes buys them a little tolerance.
I was saddened to see that the unmoving lump in the middle of the road was a raccoon, all its charm snuffed out under a car tire. Later inspection proved it to be a male, possibly drawn to its unfortunate demise while searching out a female to mate with.
February is mating season for a number of mammals—coyotes, wolves and raccoons among them. That may increase our opportunities to see the largely nocturnal raccoon, but it also means they may get whacked on the road more often.
Raccoons are one of the most abundant and widely distributed mammals in North America. It wasn’t likely always that way. Raccoons are one wildlife species that has adapted well to human settlement. Scientists believe that in pre-Columbian times, raccoons were limited to the woodlands and waterways of the southeastern United States. As settlement moved inexorably westward, so did the raccoon, finally reaching the west coast and about halfway up the Canadian provinces and south to Mexico and Central America.
Raccoons are omnivores, eating anything from fruit to nuts and everything in between. As members of the Order Carnivora, meat is always on the menu as well. With such broad food habits, it is no wonder they thrive around humans. Research has shown that raccoon populations in urban and suburban areas actually do better than their rural counterparts. Raccoons and humans are in closer contact than we might imagine and gardens, attics, garages, pet food and trashcans are all tantalizing one-stop shopping for raccoons, usually to the irritation of their human benefactors.
Raccoons are charismatic and that sometimes buys them a bit of tolerance. Their iconic and beguiling Zorro-like black mask, so useful in reducing glare, creates a mischievous, “who, me?” look. Their waddling walk, a fact of life when back legs are longer than front legs, is charming and their ability to stand up on two legs is almost childlike. Then there are their front paws. These dexterous little feet are extremely sensitive—about one third of a raccoon’s brain is dedicated to tactile sensation—but the way they can handle objects reminds us of hands. There is a lot to love there.
A raccoon’s cleverness helps create a love-hate relationship. Testing indicates that they are nearly as intelligent as Rhesus monkeys. They are able to solve complex problems, remember solutions for up to three years and at least one study determined that they can tell the difference between two, three and four objects—i.e., they can count. Animals this smart can not only solve problems but can create them, sometimes outsmarting humans.
The persistent myth that raccoons wash or dampen their food will probably live as long as the species does. While raccoons do manipulate food in the water, this is usually items that they catch in the water. A gritty field worm will get eaten just as fast as a washed one. The “washing” does soften the surface of the paws and increases tactile sensitivity. As for needing to dampen food because of lack of saliva glands, that too has been proven false.
I was first introduced to the charismatic raccoon as a boy when I read the heartwarming novel by Sterling North entitled, Rascal. Although the theme of the book is of transcending loss in life, I remember the connection between boy and raccoon, North called a “ring-tailed wonder". The clever, mischievous, endearing raccoon have held a special place with me since then.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
Sadly, when we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho