Newport This Week

The Masked Bandit in the Tree

NATURE in the NEIGHBORHOOD

(Photo by Peter Green)

(Photo by Peter Green)

It was truly August weather on a recent Saturday; hot, muggy and sticky. The coastal breeze that often blows off Narragansett Bay in the afternoon was apparently too tired to move, so there was little reprieve from the heat for anyone or anything hanging around outside.

In my third-floor apartment, the cats and I were coping with ceiling fans and the little AC unit that keeps the back room relatively cool. Dog days of summer, to be sure.

Standing at the kitchen window, I noticed a furry mass in the huge walnut tree in the backyard. Looking closer, I realized it was a large raccoon lying in the crook of the tree where three large limbs come together. He was sort of splayed out on his stomach, with his head lolling off the side of the trunk. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure if I was staring at a sleeping or dead raccoon.

I have a tendency to talk to animals, so I chatted him up a bit to see if he moved. He raised his head slowly to look at what all the fuss was about, but then dropped it down again, uninterested in me prattling on.

Nature lover Laureen Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Nature lover Laureen Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

I spent the rest of the afternoon worrying that if a raccoon died in a tree outside my window, what would that smell like and for how long? I am pretty sure raccoon removal is not in my lease, and I can almost feel the fire department collectively rolling their eyes at the mere mention of such a request.

Raccoons are a common neighbor on the island. Like the other abundant wildlife, including deer, coyote, rabbits and gulls, they have figured out how to survive quite well living around people. Challenges exist, such as large dogs and cars, but there are enough resources for them to meet their basic needs, reproduce and raise young successfully.

If you meet a raccoon, you probably know it immediately from the black mask around its eyes, the pointy nose and the black rings around its bushy tail. Their body is large in comparison to their head and relatively dainty paws, and they look hump-backed when they move.

Adult raccoons are between 18 and 28 inches in length, and weigh between 12 and 35 pounds, with males being slightly larger than females. The animal in my tree (his tree?), had to be over 25 pounds and was hanging out alone with no young in sight, so I surmised it was a male.

Raccoons are not closely related to any other mammal in North America. The origin of the name “raccoon” is said to be “arahkun,” an Algonquin word that means “he scratches with his hands.”

Their family, Procyonidae, includes other tree climbers with awesome sounding names like coati, kinkajou, olingo, cacomistle and the New World ringtail, all of which are found in Central and South America.

The most distinctive adaptation of this masked bandit is not the mask or the ringed tail, but their remarkable feet. Their tracks in the mud will remind you of a tiny child, because like humans, they have five digits on both front and back paws. And like a young child, they use those dexterous digits to dig, climb, grab and sometimes get into trouble by opening garbage cans, bird seed containers and compost bins.

Raccoons have an excellent sense of smell, but they also have thousands of nerve receptors in the tip of each toe, giving them an extraordinary sense of touch. People have witnessed them washing their food in water. But rather than raccoons being concerned about the cleanliness of their meal, biologists believe the water helps further heighten their sense of touch and identify what they have found.

Two other adaptations that help raccoons succeed are that they are primarily nocturnal foragers and they are omnivores. Newport is famous for its night-time activities, so raccoons and other nocturnal animals, such as skunk, opossum and owls, fit right into the scene.

When I checked on the walnut tree at dusk, the raccoon was gone, most likely off to find a good spot to eat on a Saturday night.

As omnivores, these opportunistic critters eat a wide variety of plants and proteins. Fish, frogs, bird eggs, insects, small mammals, grains, corn, nuts and fruit are all part of the diet. And if you make garbage, pet food and bird seed available, they will help themselves to that, too.

Backyard chickens are often targeted by raccoons, so make sure to secure your pens. Remember, they can dig, climb and open latches with their powerful but sensitive paws.

A couple of notes on interacting with these wild neighbors. There is almost nothing cuter than a baby raccoon, but I know from experience that cuddly baby raccoons turn into wild teenage raccoons after only a few months. Please do not make the unlawful mistake of taking in any type of wild animal thinking it will become your pet; nature will override nurture in almost every case.

Raccoons can also be afflicted with a number of diseases and parasites, including rabies, canine distemper, giardia and a nematode called “raccoon roundworm.”

If you are walking your dog, always keep it on a leash and make a wide circle around raccoons or other wildlife. If you see a raccoon out during the day and it seems disoriented, distraught or injured, avoid the animal and give local animal control or the RIDEM wildlife hotline a call immediately at 401- 222-3070.

Now I check the walnut tree every day to see if the raccoon comes back, but so far it has not made another appearance. However, I did meet my rabbit neighbor on the street the other morning, but that’s a story for another day.

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