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Raccoon Real Estate

Raccoon mating season starts in January and February here in Missouri & Illinois.  This is the time of year when distemper cases spike as well due to all of the raccoons having plenty of ‘physical contact’ with one another.  Mating season for the Hotline means a lot of really awkward phone calls from residents complaining about raccoons ‘fighting’ and making a ton of noise in their yards or neighborhoods.  We get the really embarrassing job of explaining to the little old lady caller that those raccoons are NOT fighting.  😉  It’s mating season, and those boys will do just about anything to get the girl.  They dart across roads and get hit by cars.  When they finally catch the girl, they don’t quite care where they are when they do the deed – your front porch is perfectly fine, or right on the other side of the fence while your dog has a temper tantrum barking at them.  They don’t care.  Mating is all that matters.  Males will mate with several females, but females only mate with one male.  As quickly as it starts, it’s over and the male leaves to find more females – not too different from the human males sometimes!  Then Mom is pregnant for about 60-73 days before giving birth.  During these two months, Mom needs to find a good spot to give birth and raise her young.

Normally, raccoons have an established territory where they know they can get food and water on a regular basis.  They know which neighborhood in their ‘zone’ puts their trash out on the curb on Monday, and they know which street puts the trash out on Tuesday, etc.  If Mom has an area that she lives in where she knows the routine and has plenty of food and water, she’s going to try to stay there.  So let’s picture it… Momma Raccoon just mated with a male, and now she knows that she’s probably pregnant.  It’s late January and super cold outside.  Mom is surviving mostly off of her autumn fat stores and will be down to about 1/2 her weight by the time spring gets here.  On the milder evenings, she comes out of the warmth of her den to forage for whatever she can find.  She knows that a man down the street has a catch bucket under his rain gutters, so she goes there first to get a drink, but it’s frozen solid.  She decides to go visit the lady one street over that has bird feeders and a bird bath that never freezes.  When she gets there the water is just as she expected, perfectly fresh and not frozen, plus there’s some extra seed on the ground for her.  Mom sticks around there eating leftover seed for a while and notices a little field mouse who shows up for some seed too.  Mom stays very quiet and thinks about pouncing on the mouse for a warm meal, but before she can, a cat comes out of nowhere and gets the mouse instead.  So much for a warm meal.  Mom has been living in a hollowed out tree trunk a mile or so from here, but it doesn’t stay very warm all the time.  Her fur only protects her so much and she needs somewhere warmer before the babies come.  While foraging for seeds, she notices some ‘smoke’ coming from a house across the street.  As she gets closer to it she notices that it is not smoke, it’s heat.  There is heat coming out of a small hole in the roof’s overhang and Momma Raccoon is so cold.

She takes a walk around the house, keeping one eye on that oh-so-warm-air seeping out of the hole.  She comes to a tree that is in the house’s back yard.  Momma climbs the tree and discovers that she can get to the roof of the home from this tree.  She jumps down to the roof safely and walks over to the overhang with the hole.  She won’t fit in the hole to get inside at first, but after some work with her busy little hands and feet and especially her strong teeth and claws, it’s no time before she can fit her entire winter-weight body in the hole.  She won’t get any larger than she is now anyway.  As she gains pregnancy weight, she’ll also be losing winter weight, so she will end up staying about the same size during her pregnancy.  Plus, she can widen that hole any time she wants.

Once inside, she is amazed at how open and safe it is.  There’s soft fluff everywhere so her babies won’t fall or get hurt like they would in a tree.  It’s warm and quiet from the air downstairs rising, and it’s good and dark with the only light coming in from the moon through the entry hole.  As the kids grow she knows they will be safe and won’t be able to wander off like they would in a traditional ground den.  Plus, there don’t seem to be any predators around at all.  She hasn’t seen a hawk, owl, coyote or fox anywhere near the attic she is living in so the babies should be okay for her to leave her when she has to go out to forage for herself.  She can hear human voices, faintly, in the distance, but isn’t worried about them.  Over time she realizes that the human voices never get closer to her, and they must like her because they leave her alone and let her live there.  The place is even big enough for her to create a latrine on the other side of the room, far from where she will be sleeping.  She’s sure the humans down below won’t mind her going to the bathroom on that side of the attic.

Finally, one night the babies come, one by one, over the course of a few hours.  Mom is exhausted, but everyone is healthy and she cleans them up and feeds them right away.  By morning, she’s hungry and needs food for energy after such a rough night.  Thankfully she found this perfect den in this attic and it’s okay to leave the babies while she goes out for a bite to eat.  Mom slinks out the hole, planning to return as quickly as possible after filling her belly. Mom is gone maybe an hour before the babies notice that it’s not as warm as they like it and they are getting a little hungry and restless.  Babies are born with eyes closed, completely blind, and one of them wiggles around trying to find the heat of Mom’s fur and gets separated from his siblings.  He begins to yell as loudly as possible to let Mom know that he’s lost, but she’s not home.   You know who is home though?  The humans who live downstairs!  The human Mom downstairs mutes the television and hushes the kids because she thinks she heard something.  She follows the sound to the 2nd floor bathroom, ABOVE her head.  “Honey!” she yells to her husband.  “There’s something hurt in the attic!”.  Dad hears it too, and tells Mom that it’s just a bird, but Mom insists on him going up there to check it out.  Dad gets the ladder, goes up to the attic and discovers 1 day old baby raccoons.  He careful picks one up and shows it to the family waiting below the ladder on the 2nd floor.  They all ooh and awww at the tiny, helpless baby.  Dad puts the baby back, noticing the large hole in his attic, knowing that Mom will be coming back.

Mom and family look up what to do on the internet and find the Wildlife Hotline.  We explain to the family that this would have been a LOT easier to fix if there were not babies involved.  We strongly advise letting the raccoons live in the attic until they are at least 4 weeks old and then we can exclude them with a one way door so they can’t get back in.  Back in January, we could have just had Dad or a handyman repair the small hole and trim the tree that Mom uses to get to the roof, and this problem would have never occurred.  It’s a bit late now though!  If you exclude Mom from the attic now, you will have a hard time getting her to take the babies with her when it is still so cold outside and they are so young.  Dad might be okay with letting nature take its course, but Mom and the kids are crying, begging Dad to not let the babies die.  Dad knows that he has to do what’s best for the animal, and give it the best shot he can at life.  But next year – Dad is going to make sure there are no weak points in the house before winter sets in!!!

Momma Raccoon returns to the hole and notices that her one baby wandered a bit from the others.  She picks him up gently in her mouth and places him back with the others.  Then she lies down to nurse, with a full belly of the neighbor’s bird seed, and she caught a mouse this time.  Momma falls asleep with her babies all over her, still safe in the attic.  As the babies grow however, she can’t keep them full with just her milk.  They need to learn to fish, forage, find food on their own.  Plus it’s time for them to learn the ways of the world to prepare them for when Mom is no longer around.  One night, Mom tells the kids that they will be going with her when she goes out for groceries tonight.  The kids are terribly excited, but a little scared too.  As soon as it gets dark, Mom climbs out the hole, and shows the kids how to climb out and down to the roof.  One by one, the kids climb out, some needing a bit more prompting from Mom than the others.  Finally they are all on the roof and she shows them how to climb the tree down to the ground.  One by one, the kids climb the tree, some needing more assistance from Mom than the others.  Finally they all have their feet on the ground.  Mom does a quick head count, to make sure everyone is there, and she begins walking away.  The babies follow like little ducks in a row, in a perfect single file line.

Human Dad however, is watching from a window and does a quick head count himself.  He watches as Mom and her healthy little babies walk off into the distance.  It’s late, and it’s dark, but this is his chance.  Dad gets the ladder from the garage, climbs up into the attic, and temporarily closes off the hole in the attic with 2×4’s and wire mesh.  First thing in the morning, he takes the ladder in the back yard and trims the branches of the tree that reach the roof.  One more time he ascends into the attic, face mask on, rubber gloves on his hands, to clean up the lovely latrine that Mom and the kids left behind.  Dad’s thinking “Ya… Adorable!”.  After getting it all cleaned up and into a trash bag, he ties it super-tight and checks one more time to make sure no one was accidentally left behind.  He finds no one. All in all, he knows that next year he will make sure that the attic isn’t accessible for wildlife to make themselves at home.

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