Nature Talks: Temperature is key to when raccoons become active

STACEY COLE April 11. 2014 8:35PM

Raccoons were on the mind of a Hooksett couple as expressed in a March 9 letter that read: "There is a large hill about 30 yards behind our house which land faces southeasterly and is exposed to sunlight. There are primarily oak trees but also ash, birch, poplar, and a few pine trees. At the base of an oak tree is an existing burrow and this year, March 7, at about 4:45 p.m., we observed an adult raccoon exit the burrow, then immediately turn and re-enter. Is this common for a raccoon to be active at this time of the year? None of its food is available such as acorns, worms, berries, etc. I cut up an apple and threw it so that it landed near the burrow thinking that it would be hungry. My wife and I 'discussed' feeding the raccoon this close to our house as she felt that this would be an invitation for it and family to approach our bird feeders, and rummage around the house/patio for more treats. The burrow has been active as in February this year we saw a fox exit the burrow and in years past a fisher and then a groundhog, respectively, have made this their home each for a period of about two years. We ask, is it common for raccoons to be roaming this time of year and if so, what is their purpose? Also, what is the typical habitat for raccoons and their territorial range?"

Since raccoons go into their dens in fall (usually in tree hollows) very well fed, if they leave their den and snow is on the ground, they immediately return to their dens for more lethargic sleep from which they are quite easily aroused and thus awakened when necessary. Raccoons are not true hibernators as are woodchucks.

According to Leonard Lee Rue III, in his book, "The World of the Raccoon": "The temperature, more than anything else, is the controlling factor in a raccoon's denning up to be 26 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as the bulk of the weather remains above this point, the raccoon will range about all winter. When the temperature drops below this point, the raccoon retires until the weather moderates. If there is deep snow on the ground, the raccoon stays in its den even though the temperature rises above freezing. Being comparatively short-legged, the raccoon would soon bog down and be at a disadvantage if it attempted to negotiate the soft, deep snow."

As to the purpose of raccoons, Mr. La Rue wrote: "The earliest Americans, the Indians, thought highly of the raccoon. Their very livelihood depended upon their thorough knowledge of all the plants and wild creatures that lived in the same area as they did. Many of their legends told how the raccoon outsmarted the other animals of the forests.

"Captain John Smith writing in 1617: 'The chief beasts of Virginia are Beares, lesse than those in other places, deere like ours, arougheun much like a badger, but living on trees like a squirrel.' Robes, hats and other garments were made from raccoon skins by these early settlers. The skins were also used for money. As time passed, 'coon' hunting with so-called 'coon' dogs became a favorite sport.

"The home range of a raccoon is about a square mile. Their normal life span is from ten to twelve years. This mammal can be found in each of the continental states, but only in the New World."

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In our column of March 15, one of our Merrimack readers commented in part: "I am writing concerning the errors provided in your column, re: food for wild turkeys. I don't understand why biologist Ted Walski provided incorrect information with respect to food listed particularly for turkey — barberry, multiflora rose and bittersweet. All three are recognized as invasive non-native species now and have been banned from sale and importation into NH and other states."

I must confess that years ago when biologist Ted Walski took over the then failed turkey program involving the "trade" of fisher for "true" wild turkeys from a Virginia area, he set to thinking of the three non-native species our reader mentioned. Going back to those days, one of them, multiflora rose, had been widely planted by farmers at the suggestion of New Hampshire county agents as "livestock fences." Here at the farm we planted multiflora rose hedges in several locations for that very purpose. How the American robins and cedar waxwings loved their berries. These birds came in great flocks during early fall to gobble them up. The wild turkeys that Ted received from upstate New York, did also.

The birds dined on bittersweet as well. Based to a great extent on these now known "non-native invasive species" the birds thrived and we now we have wild turkeys in all ten of our counties. At this time the plants in question were perfectly legal. It wasn't until the year 2000 that a law was enacted that specified them and others as "invasive" and made them illegal. We regret this wasn't made clearer in our earlier column. I have not seen a multiflora rose plant in several years. Soil conservation folks suggested we plant a tall Japanese "shrub" that over-topped our multiflora rose plants and killed them all out!

We will have more to say about invasive plants in our next column on April 26.

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In closing, let me say welcome to "Nature Talks," Cheryl Kimball (whose first column appeared last week). Your April 5 article was an inspiration to me. I know you will add a great deal to "Nature Talks." For a while, I shall continue with "snail mail." Thank you, Cheryl, for bringing "our" column into the computer age.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey 03446.

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