NPS Photo by D.A. Buehler
Raccoons are occasionally seen in Wind Cave National Park. Adult raccoons may be up to 3 feet long and weigh up to 30 pounds. They have a black face-mask and ringed tail. Their fur is long and dense, a grizzled brown and black color that has often been described as "salt and pepper." Although raccoons are flesh-eaters and have long canine teeth, their molar teeth are adapted for a varied diet, which includes more than just meat. The raccoon's closest relatives are ringtails and coatis from the Southwest.
Raccoons are inquisitive and seldom pass up the opportunity to investigate an interesting smell or crevice. They probe a crack with their front feet and pull anything of interest from its hole for closer inspection.
Raccoons are usually found near trees because they are adapted to life in the forest. They are agile climbers and have nimble feet, but they are flat-footed like humans and bears and are slow runners. Using their sensitive front feet, they catch prey in and around water, and use their front feet to bring food to their mouths and hold it while they eat.
Raccoons have well-developed senses of sight, hearing and smell.
Raccoons are omnivorous (they eat both animals and plants) and opportunistic; their diet is dictated by seasonal protein and energy needs and food availability. In spring, females feed primarily on high protein animal matter to insure development and growth of their young. Crayfish, insects, birds, eggs, fish and young rabbits are eaten when available. Later in the summer, after the young are weaned, the female's protein requirements are greatly reduced, allowing her to take advantage of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables including mulberries, sweet corn and plums.
Depending on seasonal needs, most foraging is done in or near water or around the edges of cropfields. A raccoon hunts in shallow water by turning over rocks and limbs, and probing and grabbing with its front feet. It examines potential food items by manipulating them with its front feet and touching them with its nose.
With the cooler temperatures of fall, raccoons feed intensively to build fat reserves for winter. Energy-rich foods including nuts and grain (such as corn) and high protein foods are pursued at this time. In winter, raccoons feed on waste grain, carrion and assorted small animals and insects, but rely on fat reserves to sustain them during long periods of inactivity.
Raccoons do not construct their own den sites, but rely on natural processes or the work of other animals. Traditionally, it was thought that raccoons primarily used hollow trees for winter den and spring birthing sites. Hollow trees are important, but studies show that raccoons will den in abandoned buildings, old beaver lodges or bank dens, car bodies, wood piles, abandoned badger and coyote dens and hay stacks.