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Mammals

Raccoon
(Procyon lotor)

Photo: Bob Gress, IDNR
A raccoon in the snow. Raccoons are gray-brown mammals with a dark eyemask and dark rings on their tails.

Did You Know?

  • Raccoons belong to the order Carnivora along with bears, cats, dogs, badgers and other carnivores.
  • When raccoons are calling to each other they often use a vocalization that sounds similar to the whistle of a screech owl.

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Positive Benefits

Raccoons are mesopredators and they help control local insect and rodent populations. They also are important seed dispersers.

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Description & Identification

Raccoons have grayish-brown fur and are easily identified by their black eye mask and bushy, black-ringed tail. They are medium-sized mammals, approximately 26 to 39 inches in length (including the tail), and weigh 6 to 27 pounds depending on the animal’s age and condition. An average adult male weighs 15 to 20 pounds. Raccoons in northern Illinois tend to be larger than those in southern Illinois.

Sometimes you won’t see the raccoon, you’ll just hear it. Here is a clip of raccoon sounds.

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Size Comparison

Illustrator: Lynn Smith
Man and raccoon illustration
Size comparison of a six-foot tall man and a raccoon.

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Signs: Tracks & Scat

For those unfamiliar with animal tracks, raccoon tracks may be easily confused with opossum tracks. Both animals have five toes on each foot. They also share a similar walking style that produces paired tracks. The front and opposite hind tracks will be side by side or close together. However, the tracks of the two animals are easy to tell apart if you know the characteristics of each animal.

Look at the hind track to distinguish between the two animals. The hind track of an opossum will resemble a baby’s handprint. The inner toes on an opossum’s hind foot are thumb-like and lack claws. Raccoons have claws on all of their toes and walk flat-footed.

Photo: Adele Hodde, IDNR
Raccoon tracks in mud.

Raccoon scat is often blunt on the ends and the remains of seeds or other food items will be visible. Their droppings can usually be distinguished from opossum or fox droppings by the blunt ends of the droppings. Droppings of many similar size mammals are more pointed or rounded. Raccoons often have favored latrine areas so piles of scat may indicate the presence of raccoons.

Photo: IDNR

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Distribution & Abundance

Raccoons are found in every county in Illinois and are abundant throughout the state. The number of raccoons in Illinois has increased dramatically since the 1930s. Researchers estimate that there are more raccoons in Illinois today than there were when the first European settlers arrived. It is common to have populations of 9 to 45 raccoons per square mile in Illinois. Fall population estimates of 98 to 101 raccoons per square mile have been recorded for parts of Cook, Kane and McHenry counties.

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Behavior & Ecological Role

Raccoons are nocturnal and forage for food at night. During the day they usually remain close to their den. But in urban areas, it isn’t uncommon to see raccoons out during the day.

Photo: Gordon Garcia
Young raccoon investigating a sports drink on a bench.
This young raccoon is checking out a sport drink left on a bench.

Raccoons do not hibernate, but will stay in their den for several days if the winter weather is severe. During the winter months, or in areas with large populations of raccoons and limited shelter, raccoons may den with several other individuals.

Raccoons are excellent climbers and swim well. They typically try to run away or climb a nearby tree if threatened. However, a raccoon that is cornered will growl and may try to defend itself.

Raccoons are mesopredators and help control insect and rodent populations. They also are important seed dispersers. When raccoon populations get too large, they can negatively impact bird populations by feeding on eggs and nestlings.

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Diseases & Public Health

Raccoons do not generally pose a public health risk. However, they can be carriers of rabies, a disease that is fatal to humans if not treated quickly. Therefore, care should be taken not to come into contact with raccoons. Raccoons may also be carriers of canine distemper and parvovirus, which can infect domestic cats and dogs. However, neither disease has had any human health implications reported in Illinois.

Raccoons may also be infected by several kinds of parasites, including tapeworm and roundworm. The raccoon roundworm is an Ascarid nematode and is infectious to humans. People can become infected when they accidentally ingest roundworm eggs that are shed in raccoon feces. Washing hands in hot, soapy water can prevent infection as can wearing gloves while gardening.

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Habitat & Food

The raccoon is a generalist species and can be found nearly wherever food, water and shelter are available. Historically raccoons lived in wooded river bottoms and were less abundant in the uplands. Today raccoons can be found living in urban and suburban areas and in areas with a mixture of farmland and woodland. Raccoons are less common in grasslands or in agricultural areas with few trees since these areas provide fewer sources of shelter. Raccoons normally den in hollow trees or abandoned woodchuck or fox burrows. However, they will readily use barns, chimneys, attics or the space under decks and porches for shelter if they can gain access. They have several den sites in their home range.

Home ranges of urban and suburban raccoons are typically smaller than those of rural raccoons because of the concentration of available water, food and shelter in many urban areas. Researchers have documented raccoon home ranges of 53 to 92 acres in suburban areas of northern Illinois. The size of a home range varies based on habitat quality, season, population density, and the sex and age of the raccoon. Males typically have larger home ranges than females since they often travel during the breeding season to search for mates.

Raccoons are omnivores, meaning that they eat both plant and animal material. They are opportunistic feeders and their diet varies based upon what is available in their environment. Raccoons will eat insects, crayfish, fish, turtles, voles, mice, birds and eggs. They also eat acorns, nuts, fruits, berries, corn, other grains, grasses and sedges. In urban areas, they will supplement their diet with garbage and pet food.

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Reproduction & Longevity

Raccoons are promiscuous breeders and mate with several individuals. Breeding occurs from January through March with the peak occurring in February. Gestation is approximately 63 days.

Photo: Adele Hodde, IDNR
Three young raccoons in a den in a hollow tree.

The female will raise one liter of three to four young each year. Young raccoons begin to venture outside the den for short periods of time when they are a month old, but do not leave the den until they are weaned (between two and three months of age). Though able to care for themselves, young raccoons typically stay near the female throughout the fall and winter, waiting until the following spring to disperse.

The average raccoon has a lifespan of three to five years. Dogs, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and great horned owls can take young raccoons. Adult raccoons are more likely to be killed by automobiles or disease than by predators. The oldest raccoon in a study conducted in west-central Illinois was 11 years of age.

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Damage Prevention & Control Measures

Raccoons are most likely to cause problems by denning under decks or porches or inside attics or chimneys, raiding garbage cans, digging up lawns or taking fruit or vegetables from gardens.

Habitat Modification

  • Remove tree branches that overhang the roof to limit access to chimney or attics.
  • Do not leave pet food outside overnight.
  • Store garbage in metal or tough plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. It may be necessary to secure the lid with wire or a clamp.
  • Close dumpster lids each night. Check to make sure that animals are not in the dumpster before closing the lid.

Exclusion

  • Attach heavy duty, commercial grade chimney caps at the top of chimneys.
  • Repair holes and close all openings to attics. Make sure all raccoons are out of the building before sealing openings. To be sure the animal is out, loosely stuff newspaper into the openings during the morning or afternoon when the raccoon may be asleep inside. If the newspaper was not moved overnight after a couple of days, it is safe to proceed with repairs and to close off the raccoon’s access points.
  • Prevent raccoons from getting under porches or decks. For porches or decks built within two feet of the ground, dig a trench at least ten inches deep around the deck’s perimeter. Attach 1/2″ x 1/2″ mesh hardware cloth or 1″ x 1″ welded wire from the top of the outside joists to the bottom of the trench. Leave six to eight inches of wire at the bottom and bend it out at a 90o angle. Fill the trench in with soil or rocks. Add lattice or other cover over the wire to improve aesthetics if desired.

Repellents and Frightening Devices

  • Frightening a raccoon with noise (a loud radio) or lights (mechanics trouble light or a strobe light) may discourage an individual from remaining on your property, but these techniques are usually only temporary solutions.
  • Currently there are no registered repellents for raccoons in Illinois.

Removal

If a raccoon is causing property damage, and all other control measures have failed, the animal may need to be removed. Removal should be used as a last resort.

If you do not want to remove the animal yourself, you can call a nuisance wildlife control operator (NWCO) to trap and remove the raccoon for you. NWCOs will charge a fee for this service.

If you want to remove the raccoon yourself, you will need a permit from an Illinois Department of Natural Resources District Wildlife Biologist before you trap the racoon. Request a permit HERE. The biologist can provide information on options for resolving problems, including issuance of a nuisance animal removal permit.

Click HERE for more information about hunting and trapping Furbearers. The Illinois Trapper Education Manual provides guidance on the best management practices for trapping. Trap size recommendations for raccoons is found on page 94, see: TrapperEducationManual

Current hunting and trapping seasons can be found in the Illinois Hunting and Trapping Digest or in the Legal Status section below.

Recreational fur-trapping (and hunting when/where allowed) is the preferred method to deal with nuisance furbearer issues. Trapping can help control the local population of animals and, in some cases, reduce the number of nuisance complaints and the damage that some species can cause. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources offers a lengthy trapping season (3 months, in some cases 4.5 months). Legal trapping can occur 100 yards from an occupied dwelling without permission of the occupants, closer with permission as long as there are no municipal ordinances that prohibit trapping.

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