Our spring continues to be very slow to warm up and this has meant a late start for many wildlife species.
Last week the first baby mammal arrived at MARS, the tiny “masked bandit,” was an unmistakable raccoon. These highly intelligent, curious, mischievous nocturnal creatures have highly developed senses of smell, hearing and touch and rival humans in their manual dexterity.
Raccoons are found across southern Canada and with a few exceptions across the United States and Mexico. Areas which experience harsh winters are usually devoid of raccoons as although they do sleep for a number of weeks they do not hibernate long enough to survive the extreme cold.
Originally these animals were forest dwellers but over the years have learnt to adapt to many different habitats that provide suitable shelter, food and nesting sites. As many folks can attest they are also very fond of urban areas where they often become pests.
Large black eyes peer out from black face masks and black and gray ringed tails make identification of these creatures very easy. Raccoons have long dense fur which is a combination of gray, black and white. Short front legs give raccoons a hunched over appearance when they are walking, but this allows them to sit up straight when they are eating their food.
Their flat back feet have five dextrous toes tipped with sharp strong claws, which enables them to be nimble tree and fence climbers; it is remarkable how fast they can move when alarmed.
The shorter front feet are used just like hands to collect and hold food or pry open shellfish on the beach. Classified as omnivores (they will eat anything they fancy) raccoons are opportunistic feeders devouring pretty much anything that is edible.
Favourite foods for these animals are eggs which they steal from nesting avian species when the climb up the trees but they will also hunt for small mammals, insects, birds and fish and are very happy to pick over human garbage for any tasty morsels or steal a chicken from the coop!
Mating takes place between January and March; once successfully mated the female will aggressively chase away the male leaving her in full control of raising the young. Three or four “kits” are normal for a raccoon family and the mother is highly protective of her young and will attack a predator or any other intruder she feels threatened by which includes humans.
Baby raccoons weigh only three ounces at birth, their eyes and ears are closed, their fur sparse making them totally dependent on their mother for the first nine to twelve weeks of life. It is critical for the health and welfare of these kits to be with the mother who nurtures them and then begins passing on her highly complex hunting skills; they will stay together as a family for their first year.
Baby wildlife especially raccoons, fawns and seal pups, are irresistible cute and each year MARS rescues or receives “kidnapped” babies. On arrival at our centre, the young need to be fed every 30 minutes and their diet must be as close as possible to the diet provided by the mother as the first few weeks of life are crucial for healthy development.
We do not have the necessary long-term housing to rehabilitate mammals, the raccoons are sent to Wild Arc in Victoria, the seal pups to the Vancouver Aquarium or Salt Spring Island and the fawns are raised on local acreage until they can join the herd.
These animals can change rapidly from being warm fuzzy babies to highly unpredictable aggressive juveniles. Raccoons also pose another concern in urban areas as they can carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans and should not be encouraged around your property and certainly not be fed as a pet.
A few things you can do to deter raccoons from your property are to make sure all garbage is tightly enclosed, the barbecue should be cleaned and covered and any out buildings that may be attractive as nest sites should be decluttered.
A reminder: MARS does not provide a “relocation service” for unwanted raccoons or other wildlife pests such as starlings, rabbits or pigeons, but we can offer advice.
Please call us before intervening with any wildlife species especially the babies, very often they are not orphaned the parents are away hunting and will return, their best chance of survival is with their parents.
To report injured wildlife please call toll free at 1-800-304-9968 for other calls 250-337-2021 or visit www.wingtips.org.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.