Gateway to the Classics: Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by John Burroughs
Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by  John Burroughs

The Raccoon

In March that brief summary of a bear, the raccoon, comes out of his den in the ledges, and leaves his sharp digitigrade track upon the snow,—traveling not unfrequently in pairs,—a lean, hungry couple, bent on pillage and plunder. They have an unenviable time of it,—feasting in the summer and fall, hibernating in winter, and starving in spring. In April I have found the young of the previous year creeping about the fields, so reduced by starvation as to be quite helpless, and offering no resistance to my taking them up by the tail and carrying them home.

The old ones also become very much emaciated, and come boldly up to the barn or other out-buildings in quest of food. I remember, one morning in early spring, hearing old Cuff, the farm-dog, barking vociferously before it was yet light. When we got up we discovered him at the foot of an ash-tree, which stood about thirty rods from the house, looking up at some gray object in the leafless branches, and by his manners and his voice evincing great impatience that we were so tardy in coming to his assistance. Arrived on the spot, we saw in the tree a coon of unusual size. One bold climber proposed to go up and shake it down. This was what old Cuff wanted, and he fairly bounded with delight as he saw his young master shinning up the tree. Approaching within eight or ten feet of the coon, the climber seized the branch to which it clung and shook long and fiercely. But the coon was in no danger of losing its hold; and when the climber paused to renew his hold it turned toward him with a growl, and showed very clearly a purpose to advance to the attack. This caused its pursuer to descend to the ground again with all speed. When the coon was finally brought down with a gun, it fought the dog, which was a large, powerful animal, with great fury, returning bite for bite for some moments; and after a quarter of an hour had elapsed, and its unequal antagonist had shaken it as a terrier does a rat, making his teeth meet through the small of its back, the coon still showed fight.

The coon is very tenacious of life, and like the badger will always whip a dog of its own size and weight. A woodchuck can bite severely, having teeth that cut like chisels, but a coon has agility and power of limb as well.



Coons are considered game only in the fall, or towards the close of summer, when they become fat and their flesh sweet. At this time, cooning is a famous pastime in the remote interior. As these animals are entirely nocturnal in their habits, they are hunted only at night. A piece of corn on some remote side-hill near the mountain, or between two pieces of wood, is most apt to be frequented by them. While the corn is yet green they pull the ears down like hogs, and, tearing open the sheathing of husks, eat the tender, succulent kernels, bruising and destroying much more than they devour. Sometimes their ravages are a matter of serious concern to the farmer. But every such neighborhood has its coon-dog, and the boys and young men dearly love the sport. The party sets out about eight or nine o'clock of a dark, moonless night, and stealthily approaches the cornfield. The dog knows his business, and when he is put into a patch of corn and told to "hunt them up" he makes a thorough search, and will not be misled by any other scent. You hear him rattling through the corn, hither and yon, with great speed. The coons prick up their ears, and quickly take themselves off on the opposite side of the field. In the stillness you may sometimes hear a single stone rattle on the wall as they hurry toward the woods. If the dog finds nothing he comes back to his master in a short time, and says in his dumb way, "No coon there." But if he strikes a trail you presently hear a louder rattling on the stone wall, and then a hurried bark as he enters the woods, succeeded in a few minutes by loud and repeated barkings as he reaches the foot of the tree in which the coon has taken refuge. Then follows a pellmell rush as the cooning party dash up the hill, into the woods, through the brush and darkness, falling over prostrate trees, pitching into gullies and hollows, losing hats and tearing clothes, till finally, guided by the baying of the faithful dog, they reach the tree. The first thing now in order is to kindle a fire, and, if its light reveals the coon, to shoot him; if not, to fell the tree with an axe, unless this last expedient happens to be too great a sacrifice of timber and of strength, in which case it is necessary to sit down at the foot of the tree and wait till morning.

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