Raccoons

Raccoon (Procyon lotor)

Raccoon digging in a garbage can
An adult raccoon searching for its next meal

Introduction

There are many ways to describe the average New Yorker: adaptable, resourceful, always on the lookout for a free meal. Coincidentally, these are qualities also shared by New York City’s raccoons (Procyon lotor).  Perhaps it should come as no surprise. After all, city-living can be tough, regardless of your species. Surviving in the urban jungle requires using every resource at your disposal. And raccoons, like their human counterparts, are extremely capable of doing just that.

In addition to being able to climb, dig, and swim, raccoons have thumb-like digits on their front paws that allow them to grab, twist, pull, and tear. This allows them to open trash cans, dig through garbage, and grab seed from bird feeders—all food sources that other wildlife would have a much harder time accessing. So try not to be so quick to judge them—like any city-dweller, raccoons are just doing their best to get by.

Three baby racoons
Three baby raccoons, also known as kits

General Information

Background

Raccoons are the most widespread animal in New York State, found everywhere from secluded forests to urban centers like New York City. They can live in almost any habitat, including urban and residential areas, deciduous forests, parklands, and marshes. In North America, raccoons can be found as far north as Canada and as far south as Panama, with notable exceptions in the northern Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and the Great Basin.

Raccoons are mostly solitary animals, except for mothers with young and occasionally siblings of the same sex. They understand the value of good real estate in New York City, and will happily make their homes in tree cavities, hollow logs, rock crevices, burrows abandoned by other mammals, storm sewers, and small spaces under or within buildings. Most raccoons do not live past six years old in the wild.

Appearance

A raccoon’s coat is usually a combination of brown, grey, black, and white with alternating light and dark bands on their bushy tails. They also have a distinguishing black mask-like pattern on their face. They have thin five-toed feet and sharp claws for climbing and digging. Adults weigh approximately 9 to 30 pounds, and males usually weigh more than females. Raccoons are on average 28 to 41 inches in length, with their tail accounting for approximately one-third of their length.

Behavior

New Yorkers know that, when you are hungry and on the go, the closest and quickest food spot will do. Raccoons understand this feeling all too well. As opportunistic feeders, they will eat whatever is easily accessible. They have been known to eat fruit, nuts, fungi, insects, worms, birds, turtles, eggs, mice, bats, squirrels, fish, snakes, frogs, dead animals, bird feeder seed, pet food, and human food waste.

Raccoons reach sexual maturity at one year old, and usually mate in late winter or early spring. They give birth to between two and five kits per litter approximately two months after mating. After 8 to 12 weeks, the kits begin to leave the den with their mother. The young usually disperse to find their own territory the following spring, but some set out on their own as soon as autumn.

New York City is known for having a bustling nightlife, and although raccoons are often thought to only come out when the sun goes down, they can be seen any time of the day scavenging for food. They can run 10 to 15 miles per hour for short periods of time and can swim long distances. Raccoons can also rotate their back feet, allowing them to descend from trees head-first. Visual displays are the primary form of communication within the species.

Racoon resting on a tree
A raccoon resting on a tree

Fast Facts

  • Since 2014, the City of New York has been cooperating with the federal government to vaccinate raccoons on Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens against rabies.
  • Most raccoons pose no risk of transferring disease to humans, and the incidence of rabies in the New York City raccoon population is very small.
  • Their scientific name, Procyon lotor, means "dog-like washer." Some raccoons will dip and roll their food in water before eating.
  • Raccoons have amazing dexterity, allowing them to open doors and untie knots.
  • Raccoons are protected by law. No one may possess a raccoon without a license, and licenses are not issued for pet wildlife. Hunting or trapping raccoons requires a license from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Once a raccoon has been trapped, the law requires licensed trappers to humanely euthanize the animal. They may not relocate trapped raccoons into parks or onto other public property.

Coexisting with Raccoons in NYC

  • Raccoons can be seen day or night. If seen out during the day, they should not be considered dangerous or assumed to carry rabies.
  • Do not feed raccoons. Raccoons can become a nuisance if people unknowingly supply food or shelter. Raccoons are attracted by food available in gardens, pet feeders, garbage, compost, and certain plants.
  • Observe and enjoy raccoons from a distance. Do not approach raccoons or any wild animal. If you are bitten or scratched by a raccoon, wash the wound and see your doctor as soon as possible. Report sick or injured raccoons to 311.
  • If you have a raccoon issue, call a professional. The law does allow unlicensed homeowners to destroy raccoons that damage property. Before taking such measures or hiring a licensed trapper, property owners should eliminate whatever food or shelter is attracting raccoons to their property. For homeowners who need to a hire a licensed professional, the New York State DEC website has information on how to find a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator.
  • Seal potential raccoon den locations. Block access to areas of your home, garage, or outdoor shed where raccoons might make their homes. For more information about keeping raccoons away from your home and property, read this printable tip sheet from NYC Health.
  • Vaccinate your cats and dogs. Make sure your pets’ rabies vaccinations are up to date. It's the law. To further protect your dogs, be sure to keep them leashed.

Click here to watch a short video about raccoons and learn more!