Behind the masks of our night visitors

Published 9:45 pm Wednesday, January 4, 2017

We never know what we’re going to see in our yard or at our feeders from one season to the next, and we never consider any creature a pest, although I guess that depends on your attitude.

We are usually thrilled to have a wild sighting; our gardening and landscaping skills are not good enough that a few nibblers would really have an impact on us, anyway.

There is a lot going on during the day with the usual suspects and apparently just as much going on at night with creatures otherwise unnoticed.

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Now that it gets dark so early that just around the time we are flipping on the porch lights, we are noticing a mother and three baby raccoons coming to enjoy the peanuts the squirrels didn’t finish before their bedtime.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor), is an English adaptation of a Powhatan word that means “animal that scratches with its hands.” Their front paws look like little hands; they have five fingers, but not opposing thumbs.

They can easily pick up and hold their food and have no trouble manipulating objects and obstacles in an urban environment, such as latches and tops on bird feeders or the lids on trashcans that are not on tight.

Raccoons are native to North America. A male raccoon is called a boar, the female, a sow, and the babies are called kits.

They are chunky animals. The average size for an adult is 14 to 20 pounds and 24 to 38 inches long. The individuals in the family we saw were considerably smaller. They have black fur around the eyes that looks like a mask and black and brown rings on a bushy tail. Their hind legs are longer than the front, so they look hunched over when they walk.

They are good swimmers, too. Raccoons like to be near a steady source of water and can stay in the water for several hours. Their sense of touch improves underwater, and because they like to examine objects in water they mistakenly look like they are “washing” their food.

Raccoons are omnivorous; they will eat just about anything. In the wild, their primary diet consists of plants and invertebrates like crayfish.

Raccoons are very smart. Some studies have shown that they can remember solutions to tasks for up to three years. So, they have no trouble getting into a garbage can for some tasty tidbits or finding a way into attics or under the foundation to share a comfy home, which gets them in trouble with the human neighbors and on the dreaded list of urban pests.

We guess it’s a good thing they are fast runners; they can reach at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.

We’re pretty sure our little gang of mom-and-three lives in a den in the backyard.

The babies have their little black masks when they are born and will stay with mom until they are six to nine months old. Babies are born in April or May and can go their own way in the fall or stay with mom for the winter. Dad has nothing to do with raising the babies.

Raccoons don’t hibernate during the winter and are usually solitary creatures, but they will hunker down with their friends in the den for days or weeks at a time when the weather is bad. Groups of up to 20 have been found sharing a den.

Although they look cute and cuddly, they are wild animals: stay far away! Raccoons carry diseases that can be passed to humans and pets, like rabies, trichinosis and roundworms.

Are these intelligent and adaptive creatures intruding on us or are we intruding on them? Who’s the urban pest?

Reminder: If you are interested in becoming a member of the Historic South Side Master Naturalists, classes will begin Feb. 7 and meet at the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office at the Isle of Wight Court House. The application deadline is Jan. 18.

For information and an application form visit or call the Extension Office at 365-6261.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at