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Fish & Wildlife | Ecotrope

Living With the Backyard Bandit

You’ve seen them in your garbage, in the alleyway, or as two yellow eyes at night. Raccoons are ubiquitous, even near downtown Portland, where pavement outcompetes dirt.

Bandit on the Prowl

Bandit on the Prowl

Tim Hiller, the Carnivore-Furbearer Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says we shouldn’t be surprised. “Throughout Oregon, raccoons have the highest density in the Willamette Valley,” Hiller says.

There’s never been a study conducted in the Portland Metro area that determines how dense the population truly is, but Hiller says, “They have a higher relative density anywhere there’s an abundant food source.”

Bird-feeders, garbage cans, compost bins, pet food, and edible plants are all fair game to the omnivorous raccoon. And they can display a high degree of intelligence in pursuit of that food.

A very old study conducted in 1907 by psychologist H.B. Davis attempted to determine their intelligence. His experiment tested their ability to solve problems, and he found at the heart of their intelligence is a lively curiosity, a quick learning curve, and a strong memory.

It’s what allows them to thrive in suburban environments.

“From a larger perspective,” Hiller says,”raccoons are not only increasing in abundance throughout the country, but they are also increasing their geographic range. They have been expanding northward into the Canadian prairie.”

For some folks, an abundance of raccoons is disturbing.

They can pose a serious health risk.

Last year along the Oregon coast there was an outbreak of canine distemper among the raccoon population from Astoria to Seaside. Emaciated raccoons wandered like zombies with puss coming out of their eyes, ears, and noses. It was more than disturbing. Canine distemper is often fatal, and while not transferable to humans, it is a highly contagious viral disease that can be transmitted to our pets.

So there are risks, but if we follow these simple precautions, and don’t let the potential of disease and banditry spoil our perspective, there’s a lot to enjoy about these common critters.

Raccoons have a rare foot in the mammal world. Remarkably dexterous, their slender fingers can open zippers, turn handles, and climb headfirst or backwards. They also have the curious habit of dipping their food in water. Their hands are their namesake, in English, French, and German, their name derives from some action with their paws. But perhaps their greatest trick is the same one that gives us headaches - their ability to thrive in the suburban environment.

Some love them. Some hate them. But one thing is certain, raccoons live among us, and they are here to stay.

Oregon Field Journal

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