|A raccoon appeared on my porch fence last weekend. It paused to look at me while I snapped this picture. Click to enlarge.|
|Eventually it climbed a small tree that overhangs the porch, and snuggled into a fork of branches, looking down at me.|
Raccoons fit into urban settings remarkably well, though we usually don't know they are there. Cities and suburbs provide them with regular meals at trash cans, gardens, pet food dishes, and also shelter in garages, attics, sewers, chimneys, and roof and wall spaces. Hollow trees are a popular favorite if they can be found. The New York State Department of Natural Resources estimates that there are about 100 raccoons per square mile on Long Island. In Central Park, I frequently see a large raccoon sleeping on branches that overhang Strawberry Fields, unconcerned about and usually unnoticed by tourists below. And I've seen them dodging skaters, joggers, and cyclers on busy summer nights on the park drives. They may start out shy, but they can overcome that!
The raccoon is a native American animal about the size of a small dog. It has unusual soft-skinned humanoid hands with five fingers that are not joined by webbing. It has a tail with five to seven dark bands. And it wears a famous bandit mask.
Masks make them look cute and mischievous to us, but why do they have them? Some scientists have hypothesized that the masks reduce glare like the grease marks football players wear under their eyes. Others suggest that masks protect a raccoon's eyes during fights by concealing them against a dark background. Still others think that masks enhance group cohesion and raccoon-to-raccoon communication. But raccoons are solitary and nocturnal, doing most of their business alone in the dark, so these reasons don't quite explain the mask.
In 2005, the scientific team of Newman, Buesching and Wolff compared the habits and habitats of raccoon-like masked mammals worldwide -- animals like badgers, coatis, skunks, wolverines, and others. (Click here to read the original paper.) They found that the masked animals have other things in common. They are mid-sized, terrestrial, not very fast, and share territories with at least one larger carnivore. If raccoons or their masked counterparts are attacked on open ground they will probably stand and fight, being unable to escape by running away. But despite their small size and slow speed, none of the little masked animals are easy prey. In a fight with a bear, a coyote, or a bobcat, the raccoon would probably lose but could do a lot of damage. The study concluded that the raccoon's mask is a form of aposematic coloration -- a visual announcement that raccoons are dangerous. An animal (or insect, or plant) with aposematic coloration wears a color or bright pattern as a warning. Raccoons typically hunt for food with their noses to the ground, so the bright contrasting face is not seen until they raise their heads. The bold black and white facial pattern is visible at night. They can lift their faces and reveal the pattern suddenly and startlingly. Predators learn to avoid raccoons.
People should avoid them too. They look cute but they can be dangerous and should be viewed from a distance.