Raccoon visitor shows rascally side

Patrick Durkin
Racoons are nocturnal creatures, so if you see one in daylight, study it from a distance for signs of good health: fear of humans, a glossy coat and strong appetite.

You can almost hear the flailing squirrels grunt and curse as they slide down the wide PVC pipe that holds our large bird feeder 6 feet off the ground.

Upon their return to its base, the squirrels eye the white pipe in frustration, unwilling to believe their trusty claws failed them. Then they leap about 18 inches up it again, perhaps thinking they just hit a slick patch of case-hardened bark the first time. Nope. Their claws still find no purchase. And down they slide again onto the carpet of sunflower husks. Few try thrice.

Do I take pleasure in the squirrels’ frustrations? You bet. I’m smug, too. Squirrels are why I slid the PVC shield over the feeder’s 4-inch-diameter wooden post years ago. I want the birds to get first crack at our handouts. The pushy, greedy squirrels can scrounge on the ground for whatever crumbs the birds flick them.

So imagine my arrogance when looking out our dining room window one afternoon in late May to see a raccoon inspecting my impregnable pipe. It then stood, hugged the pipe as if suction-cupped on all four legs, and shinnied up the mast like a sailor to the crow’s nest.

PO’d or not, I was humbled. And impressed. Man. I wish I could do that.

Equipped with a strong embrace and flat, bare-soled feet, the raccoon didn’t care that the hard-plastic pipe rendered its claws useless. So there it sat atop my bird feeder’s cedar-shake roof, smugly scooping sunflower seeds from the platform below, and shoveling them into its mouth like a school kid pounding Skittles.

After retrieving my camera from the next room, I slid over to the window and pressed the lens against the interior pane. The raccoon spotted me seconds later and stared into the lens with dark, intelligent eyes.

A raccoon flees a bird feeder after spotting movement inside the home.

And then, as easily as it ascended, it went over the feeder’s backside, slid down the PVC pipe headfirst, and hit the ground in full flight. The last I saw, it was run-waddling across the road for a nearby woods.

Or at least I wanted to think it was the last time I’d see the raccoon. Judging by its size, I figured it was a yearling, and had likely been evicted recently when its mother started preparing for this spring’s litter.

“Maybe it’s just passing through, looking for its own turf,” I told Penny hopefully.

Wisconsin raccoons average 14 to 24 pounds and commonly live to about age 5, but occasionally they reach age 16 and 40 pounds if living large and lucky.

But in our 25 years of living at Waupaca’s northern fringe, we’d never seen a raccoon of any size at any time of day or night. Nor had we found their scat or other telltale signs like toppled trash cans and vandalized bird feeders.

We just assumed raccoons haven’t been impressed with our home, yard and fixings when prospecting for new territory each spring. With luck, this new arrival would also find our home lacking in common niceties, and keep searching for better quarters.

No such luck. It returned at dusk two days later to snoop around our outdoor grill. Again it ran off when we went to the window.

It returned the next day about 7:30 p.m. to forage again around the main bird feeder. This time, though, it didn’t try scaling the PVC pipe. Maybe its first ascent was more difficult than I realized. I retrieved the camera and moved slowly to the dining room window. Maybe my stalk was more stealthy this time, because the raccoon didn’t notice me for a minute. Once it did, poof! It bounced away across the yard, its striped tail and jacked-up butt again waddling for the woods.

The raccoon seemed in good health, even though it had shown up at 4 p.m. the first time. Raccoons are nocturnal creatures, so if you see one in daylight, watch it closely for signs of sickness.

After calling my friendly neighborhood trapping guru, Mike Wilhite of Scandinavia, we ruled out rabies and distemper. This raccoon wasn’t drooling, its coat looked thick and glossy, it was wary of humans and, judging by the way it ate bird feed, its appetite was strong.

That’s all good, so Penny and I discussed our options as I pulled my large wire-cage trap from storage. I cleaned and lubricated its moving parts with WD-40, and baited it with a chunk of smoked carp.

So, what would we do if we caught the raccoon? I doubted its thin summer pelt would be worth the trouble of skinning, cleaning and stretching. Just for curiosity’s sake, I looked up the Department of Natural Resources’ 2015-16 furbearer survey. The DNR reported that raccoon pelts averaged a paltry $4.74 last year, ranging from $1 to $12 for the 51,403 raccoons bought from state trappers and hunters. In case you’re wondering, that’s $243,650.22 worth of raccoon fur.

OK. So the raccoon keeps his coat. Where does he get to wear it? Critter relocation experts suggest giving raccoons at least a 10-mile ride from where you catch them to ensure they don’t return.

But once there, you can’t just turn the critter loose, dab your eyes, wave your handkerchief and wish it well. No, you need a DNR permit to release it on state-owned lands, and the landowner’s permission to release it on private property. We have friends and relatives with rural property, so relocation shouldn’t be much trouble.

All we had to do was catch it. The fish chunk disappeared the first night, but the thief got away without triggering the trap. I rebaited the trap, this time shoving the fish all the way to the rear so the raccoon would have to step past the trigger plate to reach it.

The night passed, but the fish remained. And then another night and another passed, and then a week. The raccoon seemingly has moved on. Problem solved. The system works.

Having written that, I’m sure it will return tomorrow.