I was running up Depot St in Burlington on Monday night and came across three hooligans lurking in the shadows, surely up to no good. They gave me that innocent, “Us? Um, no, nothing. We’re not doing anything. Just hanging out on this here pipe keeping the place safe from, you know, the riffraff.” Here in Burlington, I’ve only seen multiple raccoons congregating together around dumpsters and it made me wonder about what might cause raccoons to spend time in each other’s company when not around a dumpster. 

As chance would have it, I also had a game cam set up near Centennial Field where I’ve seen deer bedding down. I was disappointed when I checked the footage and didn’t see any deer on the cam. I did, however, get several videos of a raccoon (very much alone) walking up and down the deer trail. And then in one of the last videos a pair of raccoons came walking by. Check the video and take a guess at their behavior before reading below to see what they’re up to…

Only 1 of the 3 raccoons is visible, the other three were hiding in the tangle of grape and bittersweet vines (Depot St, Burlington)

Making sense of raccoon behavior

Raccoons are primarily solitary, foraging for crane fly larvae and crayfish down in the rivers, sleeping birds in tree cavities, grasses in meadows, frozen apples (they’ll happily oblige a proffering hawthorn or crabapple) lining suburban streets, and of course garbage (source). Cold weather puts a damper on their frisky side, and they can den up for days or even weeks at a time up here in the north (quick note: raccoons have a huge range so info on breeding habits, behavior patterns etc. are not universal and may be quite different for the raccoons in Vermont as compared to those in Nicaragua).

In the video, there’s a pair of raccoons. The first one scent marks on a small stump, and then the second comes along and scent marks over it before doing a fun little foot shuffle. I found scant information on scent marking in raccoons (source, source), but I think with enough to puzzle this one out. My best guess is that like the 3 raccoons in the above photo, this is a temporary group that forms during the breeding season. The pair consists of 2 male raccoons who are seen engaging in “anogenital” rubbing on that poor stump. It appears as though they’re making the rounds, marking out their territory to defend from other males.

Like chipmunks, as day length increases raccoons are happily wrested from winter somnolence to mate, weather be damned. Breeding behaviors occur from January to mid-February when the males get an itch in the britches, become territorial, and seek out as many mates as possible. Always the generalist, there are a number of different mating strategies that raccoons take up, the particular strategy representing the confluence of many factors (e.g. population density, concentration of females, resource availability, harshness of winter, predation of young, etc.). In urban areas, where concentrations of raccoons is higher, males often partner in small bands (up to 4 raccoons) and prowl their collective territories. The largest males are dominant within the group and end up doing most – but importantly not all – of the mating.

So why would the other males join the group? A lone male, especially smaller ones, would be hard pressed to defend his territory from other males and certainly from other bands of males, and would lose out completely on access to receptive females. By combining forces, the male band potentially have access to more females (these groups can defend territories that overlap with up to a dozen females). Because body size is a critical factor for breeding success, it can take males several years to begin breeding.

Females, however, are sexually mature in their first year. They have an extremely narrow period of estrus (comes from the Greek for “frenzied”), and are only sexually receptive for 3-4 days. For all that male territorial bravado, the females are rather promiscuous, “consorting” with 1-4 other males – longer periods of estrus result in higher numbers of matings. Interestingly, synchronized estrus makes it more likely that subdominant males will successfully reproduce as the narrow window prevents dominant males from monopolizing mates. Post-copulation, which can take up to an hour, there’s very little interaction between the males and females. Gestation lasts a couple of months, and the young are born in the spring. They’ll stay with their mom, learning the ropes for about a year before striking out on their own.

Most of this goes unnoticed as we take our own refuge from the cold, but a good reminder of the wild world that lives in the shadows of our cities.

A raccoon climbing a hemlock (Centennial Woods, Burlington)
A raccoon grooming itself at the base of a hemlock (Centennial Woods, Burlington)

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