How to coexist with raccoons

We’re all just trying to live our best life

Raccoons are one those animals that either evoke a love them or hate them response, depending on your particular experience. Many love their masked faces, earning them nicknames like trash pandas and trash bandits, but their mischievous nature makes them tough to contend with when they make their presence known around our homes.

The preferred habitat for raccoons is moist woodlands, according to the Animal Diversity Web. However, they are very adaptable, which is one reason why they are a familiar sight in neighborhoods and more suburban and even urban areas. In Illinois, they are actually most common in these urban/suburban areas, as well as in places with a mixture of woodland and farmland, according to Wildlife Illinois. They are less common in agricultural areas and grasslands.

In Illinois, the raccoon population has grown substantially since the 1990s. Scientists believe there are more raccoons living in the state today than there were when the first European immigrants arrived here centuries ago, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Their population combined with their opportunistic diet means it’s not that unusual for raccoons to make unwelcome trips to your yard, especially if you store food outdoors or your garbage cans are easily accessible. They’re also very smart and quite dexterous, thanks to front paws that resemble human hands, the Animal Diversity Web reports, which means they are often able to get into things other animals cannot.

Ecological effects

A raccoon on a branch.

Raccoons are considered mesopredators, which means they occupy a middle rung in the food chain. They prey on smaller animals like insects and rodents and help control the populations of these animals in their habitats. Because raccoons are omnivores, they also are important seed spreaders, which they disperse through their scat.

In areas where they feed primarily on a particular species, raccoons can have a significant impact on their population, Animal Diversity Web reports. When raccoon populations become too large, they can have a negative effect on bird populations because they will eat bird eggs and nestlings, according to Wildlife Illinois.

Some larger predators, including coyotes, foxes, bobcats and owls, prey on raccoons. Domesticated dogs also sometimes kill raccoons. However, in Illinois, adult raccoons are more likely to die from disease or from being hit by a car than predation.

Mating and reproduction

Three raccoons in a tree cavity.

Breeding season for raccoons occurs from January through March, peaking in February. Females usually have one litter with three to four offspring, IDNR reports. Babies are usually born in late April or early May, but can be born as late as August depending on mating time.

Young raccoons are able to leave their dens for short spells by about the time they are 1 month old, but they do not leave on their own until they have been weaned, usually when they are between 2 months and 3 months old, Wildlife Illinois reports. Young raccoons are able to survive on their own by fall, but many young raccoons stay with their mothers until the following spring.

Health risks

A raccoon on tree bark.

Raccoons do not typically pose health risks to humans, but they can cause problems in areas where their population is large or when they come in close contact with people, IDNR reports. Raccoons can be carriers of rabies, which is fatal in humans if not properly treated promptly. Because of this risk, people should avoid contact with raccoons.

In addition, raccoons can carry both canine distemper and parvovirus, which can infect our dogs and cats, according to Wildlife Illinois. Neither of these diseases is known to have any implications for humans in Illinois.

Raccoons can have also many different kinds of parasitic infections, including roundworm and tapeworm. Some of these parasites can also infect humans, and in some cases the infection can be accidental, after ingesting parasitic eggs spread through raccoon scat. You can prevent the spread of infections in this way be wearing gloves while gardening or doing yardwork and by washing hands with hot, soapy water, Wildlife Illinois advises.

Problems and solutions

A raccoon on a bird feeder.

Raccoons come by their reputation as trash bandits honestly, so they sometimes cause problems in residential areas by getting into garbage cans or even by pilfering fruits and vegetables from gardens. You can keep raccoons out of garbage cans by making sure they have tight-fitting lids or by securing lids with clamps or wires, Wildlife Illinois advises. You can also avoid unwanted visits by raccoons to your property by not storing pet food or bird seed outdoors. 

Another problem some homeowners have encountered with raccoons is dens established under porches and decks and in attics and chimneys. You can prevent raccoons from entering your attic by repairing any holes in your roof and home. Keep chimneys raccoon-free zones by attaching a heavy-duty, commercial grade cap to your chimney top, Wildlife Illinois recommends. You should remove tree branches hanging over your roof to keep raccoons from gaining access to attics and chimneys.

If raccoons cause problems by taking shelter or making dens under your porch or desk, you will need to secure the area to keep raccoons out. For structures less than 2 feet above the ground, you can do this by digging out a trench at least 10 inches deep around your porch or deck, Wildlife Illinois recommends. Then attach metal mesh or welded wire to the top of your deck, leaving 6 inches to 8 inches remaining along the ground, bended out away from the deck. The trench should then by filled with rock or soil. You can also attach lattice or another decorative cover over the mesh to improve the appearance.

If animals on your property continue to cause damage after corrective measures have been taken, consider humanely removing and relocating them only as a last resort. Trapping a raccoon to remove it from your property requires a permit from IDNR. If you do not want to remove it yourself, contact a licensed wildlife control operator to contract their services.

All wildlife in Illinois are under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Forest Preserve District of Will County does not treat, rescue or remove wildlife from public or private property. Both the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Illinois maintain lists of wildlife rehabilitators you can contact for assistance with injured wildlife. 

(Photos via Shutterstock)

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