Raccoons at the Dunes
It was around midnight on the first night of a week of tracking on Oregon’s coastal sand dunes with the Wilderness Awareness School‘s homeschool teen program, and I was snug as a bug in a rug underneath my small tarp shelter. My dreams of clear fox prints and porcupine sightings were abruptly interrupted by a strange swishing noise next to my head. I turned toward the noise and open my eyes to see two little black hands on my backpack. Right above them were two little black eyes, shining calmly at me in the light of the just-full moon.
“Ack!” was approximately what I shouted as I grabbed my backpack from Ms. Raccoon’s clutches. As she turned nonchalantly and walked away, I caught sight of a stub where her fluffy black and grey tail should have been. At least it was her tail that was missing and not my backpack!
Raccoon Tracks or Niece Tracks?
That was the first of many encounters with “No-Tail” throughout that week. Her paw prints were found on several occasions in the powdery dirt near our makeshift kitchen, looking as if my four-year-old niece had come and placed her hands on the ground as part of an art project. Raccoons have remarkably human-like front paws, which comes as no surprise given that touch is their dominant sense. Raccoons are constantly pawing, patting, digging, touching and exploring the world with their hands. No-Tail and her relatives are primarily nocturnal scavengers, favoring areas near water. This means that sensitive, long digits are quite useful whether raccoons are sifting through mud and stream vegetation to find invertebrates, or whether they have just unzipped your backpack and are ripping open your bag of homemade jerky.
Like us, raccoons have continuous palm pads that connect to their digital pads. In raccoon tracks the palm pads often register as a C-shape print, and nails often register. Most of a raccoon’s weight is in its rear, so it follows that in comparison to a front raccoon track, a rear palm pad is slightly larger; its digits appear slightly shorter, wider and less splayed; and the back-foot heel registers more often than the front foot’s heel. Think of a human foot compared to a human hand.
- 5 long toes front (track on left) and rear (on right)
- Claws may or may not register
- Fused, C-shaped palm pad
- Front track approximately 1½ – 3 inches in length and width
- Rear track slightly longer with less splayed digits
Typical Track Pattern: Overstep Walk
On the sand that week, if I saw a string of tracks that I thought might be raccoon, I immediately looked for a track pattern. A dead giveaway for raccoon tracks is pairs of two where a front track is paired side by side with a hind track. This track pattern indicates that the raccoon is moving in a severe overstep walk — its baseline gait. This is where one side of the body practically moves in unison, reaching much farther forward than in a normal walk, followed by the next side doing the same. Note that raccoons will occasionally gallop or bound.
- Track pattern of pairs of two
- Bottom and top set of tracks are left front paired with right rear
- Middle set of tracks are left rear paired with right front
Similar But Different…
At some point, you are likely to confuse raccoon tracks with those of mustelids (members of the weasel family). There is some overlap in track size for river otters, fishers and martens. But weasels very rarely move in an overstep walk. Also, if you see any evidence of fur or webbing, it is not a raccoon, as they have naked pads.
There is also the possibility that if a raccoon’s toe 1 (thumb) is missing from the track, you could mistake the track for that of a bobcat. However, bobcats don’t have the C-shaped heel pad, their digits connect to their palm pad, their nails rarely register, and they would not move in a severe overstep walk.
The Scat of the Bandit
No-tail left evidence of her wanderings throughout our camp in the form of raccoon scat as well as tracks. As I was searching one evening for a friend’s backpack that had successfully been pulled away in the night, I found a black tubular scat in the midst of an evergreen huckleberry patch. Raccoon scat tends to be dark, blunt tubes from ½ to 1 inch in diameter and anywhere from 3 to 10 inches long. Raccoon scat are found singly, or in latrines at the base of a tree or under an overhanging rock. Raccoon scat contains a parasitic roundworm fatal to humans, so do not smell or touch! Telltale raccoon sign other than scat is ripped up food packaging dragged under thickets or in bushes.
Raccoon scat tendencies:
- Dark or black
- Uniform tube that is ½ to 1 inch in diameter
- 3 to 10 inches long, blunt ends
- Often found in latrines
Go Get ‘Em!
Raccoon cliff notes: child-like handprints in areas near water; overstep walk track pattern; latrines of blunt, tubular scat. Now get out there and find some of No-Tail’s relatives…just keep your backpack close!
- Mammal Track and Sign by Mark Elbroch
- Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest by David Moskowitz
- Behavior of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart
- Scats and Tracks of North America by James C. Halfpenny, Ph.D.