Valentine’s day may be just a memory of roses and chocolate for some; however, love is still in the air for the raccoon.
Raccoon romance reconnaissance is underway as males look for love. Mating for this species is at its peak in February, spurred on with the increase in daylight that has been noticeable over the past few weeks.
Emerging from their winter respite starting in January, raccoons are on the prowl for a pal. And just one may not do!
Although male and female raccoons can den together over winter, once they emerge, they go their separate ways. Practicing polygyny, raccoons don’t claim one true love. Males will mate with as many females as possible, while female solicitations depend on the length of their estrus or fertility period that can last from a couple of days up to a week. Shorter estrus periods make for fewer couplings.
For males to be successful, their motto could be the bigger the better. Studies show that larger males (in terms of sheer bulk) mate with more females than their smaller counterparts.
Since they are primarily crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and nocturnal, it is uncommon to catch raccoons in the act. Their pairing is considered active mating, with the partners screeching, growling, grabbing and biting. Up to one hour of copulation, which is said to include foreplay, is not unusual, and the action can continue over several nights.
What is curious, however, is how the male is endowed. As is the case in some mammals, he has a baculum, or penis bone. And just as interesting is the human obsession with this felicitous feature and its clearly multiple uses. Finnish naturalist Peter Kalm wrote in 1649 “that the raccoon’s oddly curved penis bone — which Linnaeus had noticed while dissecting his pet — was hailed by the Indians as the perfect tool for cleaning their tobacco pipes.”
Perhaps that unique characteristic and amorous behavior was what inspired Ivan Sanderson, author of Mammals of the World, to write: “A very interesting book could be written about the raccoon and, with its industrious energy and resourcefulness, it deserves to be elevated to the status of the national emblem in place of the parasitical, carrion-feeding bald eagle.”
After that rosy glow fades, the female is left on her own. This is safer for her offspring; since adult male raccoons are known to be aggressive to their young. Gestation will take approximately two months, then the female will give birth to two to five kits, or cubs. One litter is common; however, if the first litter isn’t viable, the female can go into estrus again in the early spring. Males take no part in raising those kits, which are blind and deaf when they are born. The female and cubs will stay together over the summer and, come fall, the young go off on their own.
Though quiet this season may be, wild times are happening with the wildlife out there. Now that you know of the raccoon’s nocturnal lovemaking habits, don’t be quick to blame the neighborhood cat if you hear the sounds of passion during these late winter nights. In the same way that the occasional toppled trash can is not always a dog’s fault, it might be just as well to ask, “Who was that masked man?”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.