Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The Raccoon

Photo by George Fiske, Jr.

The Raccoon

Teacher's Story

dropcap image ONE other of our little brothers of the forest, has such a mischievous countenance as the coon. The black patch across the face and surrounding the eyes, like large goggles, and the black line extending from the long, inquisitive nose directly up the forehead give the coon's face an anxious expression; and the keenness of the big, beady, black eyes and the alert, "sassy" looking, broadly triangular ears, convince one that the anxiety depicted in the face is anxiety lest something that should not  be done be left undone; and I am sure that anyone who has had experience with pet coons will aver that their acts do not belie their looks.

What country child, wandering by the brook and watching its turbulence in early spring, has not viewed with awe, a footprint on the muddy banks looking as if it were made by the foot of a very little baby. The first one I ever saw, I promptly concluded was made by the foot of a brook fairy. However, the coon is no fairy; it is a rather heavy, logy animal and, like the bear and skunk, is plantigrade, walking on the entire foot instead of on the toes, like a cat or dog. The hind foot is long, with a well-marked heel, and five comparatively short toes, giving it a remarkable resemblance to a human foot. The front foot is smaller and looks like a wide, little hand, with four long fingers and a rather short thumb. The claws are strong and sharp. The soles of the feet and the palms of the hands look as if they were covered with black kid, while the feet above and the backs of the hands are covered with short fur. Coon tracks are likely to be found during the first thawing days of winter, along some stream or the borders of swamps, often following the path made by cattle. The full-length track is about 2 inches long; as the coon puts the hind foot in the track made by the front foot on the same side, only the print of the hind feet is left, showing plainly five toe prints and the heel. The tracks may vary from one-half inch to one foot or more apart, depending on how fast the animal is going; when it runs it goes on its toes, but when walking sets the heel down; the tracks are not in so straight a line as those made by the cat. Sometimes it goes at a slow jump, when the prints of the hind feet are paired, and between and behind them are the prints of the two front feet.


Coon Tracks

1. Walking     2. Jumping

The coon is covered with long, rather coarse hair, so long as to almost drag when the animal is walking; it really has two different kinds of hair, the long, coarse, gray hair, blackened at the tips, covering the fine, short, grayish or brownish under coat. The very handsome bushy tail is ringed with black and gray.

The raccoon feeds on almost anything eatable, except herbage. It has a special predilection for corn in the milk stage and, in attaining this sweet and toothsome luxury, it strips down the husks and often breaks the plant, doing much damage. It is also fond of poultry and often raids hen houses; it also destroys birds' nests and the young, thus damaging the farmer by killing both domestic and wild birds. It is especially fond of fish and is an adept at sitting on the shore and catching them with its hands; it likes turtle eggs, crayfish and snakes; it haunts the bayous of the Gulf Coast for the oysters which grow there; it is also a skillful frog catcher. Although fond of animal diet, it is also fond of fruit, especially of berries and wild grapes.

It usually chooses for a nest a hollow tree or a cavern in a ledge near a stream, because of its liking for water creatures; and also because of its strange habit of washing its meat before eating it. I have watched a pet coon performing this act; he would take a piece of meat in his hands, dump it into the pan of drinking water and souse it up and down a few times; then he would get into the pan with his splay feet and roll the meat beneath and between them, meanwhile looking quite unconcernedly at his surroundings, as if washing the meat were an act too mechanical to occupy his mind. After the meat had become soaked until white and flabby, he would take it in his hands and hang on to it with a tight grip while he pulled off pieces with his teeth; or sometimes he would hold it with his feet, and use hands as well as teeth in tearing it apart. The coon's teeth are very much like those of the cat, having long, sharp tushes or canines, and sharp, wedge-shaped grinding teeth, which cut as well as grind. After eating, the pet coon always washed his feet by splashing them in the pan.

It is a funny sight to watch a coon arrange itself for a nap, on a branch or in the fork of a tree; it adapts its fat body to the unevenness of the bed with apparent comfort; it then tucks its nose down between its paws and curls its tail about itself, making a huge, furry ball. In all probability, the rings of gray and black on the tail, serve as protective color to the animal sleeping in a tree during the daytime, when sunshine and shadow glance down between the leaves with ever-changing light. The coon spends much of its days asleep in some such situation, and comes forth at night to seek its food.

In the fall, the coon lays on fat enough to last it during its winter sleep. Usually several inhabit the same nest in winter, lying curled up together in a hollow tree, and remaining dormant all winter except when awakened by the warmth of a thaw. They then may come forth to see what is happening, but return shortly to wait until March or April; then they issue to hunt for the scant food, and are so lean and weak that they fall easy prey to their enemies.

The young are born in April and May; there are from three to six in a litter; they are blind and helpless at first, and are cared for carefully by their parents, the family remaining together for a year, until the young are fully grown. If removed from their parents the young ones cry pitifully, almost like babies. The cry or whistle of the fully grown coon is anything but a happy sound, and is quite impossible to describe. I have been awakened by it many a night in camp, and it always sounded strange, taking on each time new quavers and whimperings. As a cry, it is first cousin to that of the screech-owl.

The stories of pet coons are many. I knew one which, chained in a yard, would lie curled up near its post looking like an innocent stone except for one eye kept watchfully open. Soon a hen, filled with curiosity, would come warily near, looking longingly at remains of food in the pan; the coon made no move until the disarmed biddy came close to the pan. Then, there was a scramble and a squawk and with astonishing celerity he would wring her neck and strip off her feathers. Another pet coon was allowed to range over the house at will, and finally had to be sent away because he had learned to open every door in the house, including cupboard doors, and could also open boxes and drawers left unlocked; and I have always believed he could have learned to unlock drawers if he had been given the key. All coons are very curious, and one way of trapping them is to suspend above the trap a bit of bright tin; in solving this glittering mystery, traps are forgotten.

Lesson LXI

The Raccoon

Leading thought—The raccoon lives in hollow trees or caves along the banks of streams. It sleeps during the day and seeks its food at night. It sleeps during the winter.

Method—If there are raccoons in the vicinity, ask the older boys to look for their tracks near the streams and to describe them very carefully to the class. The ideal method of studying the animal, is to have a pet coon where the children may watch at leisure its entertaining and funny performances. If this is impossible, then follow the less desirable method of having the pupils read about the habits of the coon and thus arouse their interest and open their eyes, so that they may make observations of their own when opportunity offers. I would suggest the following topics for oral or written work in English:

"How and Where Coons Live and What They Do;" "The Autobiography of a Coon One Year Old;" "The Queer Antics of Pet Coons;" "Stories of the Coon's Relative, the Bear."




1. Where have you found raccoon tracks? How do they differ from those of fox or dog? How far are the footprints apart? Can you see the heel and toe prints? Do you see the tracks of all four feet? Are the tracks in a straight line like those of the cat? What is the size of the track, the length, the breadth?

2. What do coons eat and how do they get their food? Which of our crops are they likely to damage? What other damage do they do? Have you ever heard coons cry or whistle during August nights in the cornfields?

3. Why do raccoons like to live near the water? What do they find of interest there? How do they prepare their meat before eating it? How does a coon handle its meat while eating it?

4. What kind of fur has the coon? Why does it need such a heavy covering? Describe the color of the fur. Describe the tail. Of what use is such a large and bushy tail to this animal?

5. Describe the coon's face. How is it marked? What is its expression? Describe the eyes and ears. The nose. Has it teeth resembling those of the cat and dog?

6. Describe the coon's feet. How many toes on the front feet? How many on the hind feet? How does this differ from the cat and dog? How do the front and hind feet differ in appearance? Can both be used as hands?

7. How do coons arrange themselves for a nap in a tree? How do they cover the head? How is the tail used? Do you think this bushy tail used in this way would help to keep the animal warm in winter? Do coons sleep most daytimes or nights?

8. At what time of year are coons fattest? Leanest? Why? Do they ever come out of their nests in winter? Do they live together or singly in winter?

9. At what time of year are the young coons born? Do you know how they look when they are young? How are they cared for by their parents?

10. Are the coon's movements slow or fast? What large animal is a near relative of the coon?

Supplementary reading—American Animals, Stone and Cram; Wild Neighbors, Ingersoll; Familiar Life of Field and Forest, Mathews; Little People of the Sycamore, Roberts; Life of Animals, Ingersoll; "Mux" in Roof and Meadow, Sharp; Little Brother of the Bear, Long.


Professor Fred S. Charles and His Pet Coon, "Dick"

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