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Raccoon 1, gardeners 0. May 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening.
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*&%$!!#@! raccoon. Our friend Ben discovered a goldfish (dead) and snail (mercifully unharmed) lying on the deck yesterday morning, and a muddy, ripped-up mess where the container water garden had been looking so lovely and serene. As feared (see my post on setting up the water garden, “A good day for gazing balls”), the wretched raccoon had discovered the all-you-can-eat buffet on our deck and bellied up for its dinner.

As the earth awakens from its winter rest and gardening season moves from a longed-for dream to a blister-inducing reality, raccoons emerge from hibernation, mate, and bear their young. By May and June, the females have hungry mouths to feed (including their own) and the males are footloose and fancy free. Just as your first crops are ripening, you’re likely to see these big, smart, adaptable omnivores casing your produce or pet food—or worse, see the path of nocturnal destruction they’ve left in their wake.

We’re not the only ones who’ve suffered raccoon depredations in the past few weeks. Melissa at Zanthan Gardens (http://www.zanthan.com/gardens/gardenlog/) had a raccoon trash her water garden, too. And the Weed Whackin’ Wenches (http://www.weedwhackinwenches.blogspot.com/) had a very humorous encounter with a raccoon attempting to raid their garden and have since posted the formidable Diva Dog on guard duty to prevent any recurrences. Our good friend Edith had the ultimate horror, a family of raccoons in her attic. (Given the noise even a solitary squirrel makes overhead, our friend Ben shudders to think of the racket, not to mention what else might be going on. It probably sounded like boot camp in progress.)

From one end of the country to the other, the raccoons are active… and they’re hungry. Our friend Ben understands that they’ve even become naturalized in Europe, and are up to their usual tricks in urban and suburban areas there, too. Yikes!

What makes raccoons more of a menace than those other backyard marauders, groundhogs (aka woodchucks), bunnies, skunks, and ‘possums? (Note that I did not say deer. if you have a deer problem, you probably laugh at raccoons. But that is another story.) It’s a combination of intelligence, dexterity, omnivorous habits, and size. Did I mention that raccoons are big? A fullgrown male can weigh 35 pounds and be 36 inches—that’s 3 feet, folks—long, not counting the 10-inch tail. The largest raccoon on record weighed more than 50 pounds. It takes a fair amount of food to fill an animal that size, and the critter can do quite a lot of damage just waddling around among your plants.

Raccoons are dexterous because they really have hands rather than front paws, and they certainly know how to use them. And like us, raccoons are omnivorous. (Unlike us, they have a fondness for garbage cans, and have absolutely no trouble pulling off the lid so they can climb in and explore.) They’ve been known to open screen doors, climb in open windows, and squeeze through pet doors to get to the coveted kitchen, then open cabinets and refrigerators, removing choice treats from their wrappers and leaving a pile of wrappers and an open fridge door, much like a distracted teenager, in their wake. (Cheesecake is apparently a favorite; our friend Ben can sympathize.) The very word “raccoon” derives from a Virginia Algonquian word meaning “he scratches with his hands.”

Another famous thing raccoons do with their hands is wash their food before eating it—the Norwegian word for raccoon means “wash bear”—though scientists will hasten to assure you that they’re not actually trying to get the food clean. (Just what they are trying to do is still a matter of debate.) Unfortunately, this means that a water garden provides one-stop shopping: The raccoon can select its meal and wash it in one convenient location.

What to do? Putting netting over the water garden is reputedly effective at keeping raccoons (and other predators like herons) out, though it hardly enhances the water garden’s aesthetic appeal, which is surely the reason we have them to begin with. (Since most raccoons are nocturnal, I suppose you could net the water garden at night and remove the netting every morning, but what a pain.) Our friend Ben is hoping that a barricade of container plants will at least give our raccoon pause. (By contrast, our outdoor cats love them, lolling on the deck in the shade of the plants’ foliage and doubtless dreaming of the jungle.)

Incidentally, you may wonder how we know that it’s a raccoon and not the outdoor cats attacking the water garden. Fortunately, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out. While the cats do exhibit a preference for drinking the water in the container gardens rather than the fresh water in their own bowls (gross!!!), they don’t fish in them or tear up plants. Battered, knocked-around plants and muddy water are sure signs of raccoon feasting.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have two other things going in our fishes’ favor: First, we laid a section of clay pipe horizontally in the bottom of the water garden to provide the fish with a safe haven, then put in lots of plants for cover. And second, in past years this raccoon has appeared practically nightly for a couple of weeks, then moved on for the rest of the season. Maybe the other fish (and snails) will fare better. If not, our favorite water-garden store, Aquatic Concepts, is fortunately just a couple of miles down the road. We’ll just wait until there’s no further sign of depredation and restock.

For someone like our friend Ben who grew up with Sterling North’s heartwarming book Rascal, his real-life story of growing up with a beloved pet raccoon, to make the transition to viewing raccoons as pests isn’t easy. But one look at the helpless fish, the hapless snails, and the ravaged plants is enough to cause an attitude adjustment. Not to mention the very real threat of rabies to our outdoor cats—37.5% of reported rabies cases are in raccoons.

This morning, the water garden is once again unmolested. The water is clear, the plants are recovering, and I can see the two surviving fish swimming peacefully in the depths. But our friend Ben knows better than to assume that the worst is over. Once the raccoon has a chance to size up the situation, it will be raccoon 2, gardeners 0. It’s going to be a long couple of weeks.       

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Comments»

1. Zoe - May 26, 2008

So sorry to hear about your Raccoon Raid, its soul destroying when thing like this happen. We get deer at the front, but I can just about cope with their vandalism, as they are so beautiful, we get muntjack, roe and fallow. The red foxes can be a problem at the back, especially when the cubs play, they run riot. Whilst being adorable, my 5 cats often chase them off the premises, and let them know whose territory it is. Maybe thats the answer? have a predator of your own?

We don’t get Raccoons in the UK, I can only imagine Badgers being as destructive having read the blogs you mentioned.

Hope you find a solution,

Best Wishes,

Zoë

We have red foxes, too, Zoe, though none in our yard so far. I always enjoy seeing them, and was delighted to see one romping through the field behind our house last summer—until I suddenly thought of the chickens! Fortunately, our chickens have remained unmolested in the Pullet Palace and well-fenced surrounds… so far… I fear that cats are no match for raccoons. I’ve seen a few scratched noses on our crew from time to time, indicating that they’ve tried to run the wretches off, but to no avail. Thanks heavens that, for whatever reason, the raccoons haven’t yet taken up permanent residence!

2. Joy - May 26, 2008

We have been lucky not to have raccoons (this year) they hold dances on our deck for some reason .. I swear they wear wooden clogs when the music starts up ! .. no pond so we don’t have that awful temptation .. neighborhood cats have almost avoided our place now since I used the Montreal steak spice .. works better that “critter-ridder” seems garlic and pepper with those other secret spices REALLY work better ? but then we have the problem of smelling so good in areas we want to BBQ rather early in the morning .. jeez !
In any case .. I’m sorry to hear so many gardeners have the raccoon MAFIA working their place .. hang in there !

Joy, I am *totally* intrigued! Please tell us more about the Montreal steak spice and how you’re using it. How fascinating! Wonder if that would work on raccoons, or if they’d just rub the fish in it before eating them?!

3. ceecee - May 26, 2008

Oh my, I’m so sorry about your water garden/fish. I was going to suggest a hiding place for your fish, but you’ve already taken care of that.

I worked for years as a rehabber for Wildlife Rescue here in my town. Raccoons were often on the public’s *&%$$!!@ list. As you say, they are so smart and dexterous. For your friend with them in the attic—once the kits are big enough to go out with mom at night, they can be shut out of their den in the attic. It will require that your friend stay up late and have the ability to close off the entrance. It will require lots of heavy-duty materials. Sows (female coons) are well known for tearing through half-baked attempts at closing off her den. The key element is to make sure she has the kits with her. Closing up a den with kits in it makes for dead kits and a very unhappy homeowner.

Another bit of raccoon knowledge. They and their nighttime counterparts, opossums and skunks, travel a food highway. Once they discover food, they will come back to hit it every night until it no longer provides the groceries. Something like this—your neighbor’s open trash can, your water garden, your neighbor’s outdoor cat food, their neighbor’s bird feeder, etc. I had a dickens of a time convincing homeowners to simply pick up their cat food for a few nights or close their trash cans tightly. “But what will Fluffy do for food for the next few nights!!??”

I wish you good luck with your water garden. Maybe figure out a cover for it for a few nights or surround it with ammonia soaked rags for a few nights. Ammonia drives out/away just about any animal. Another Wildlife Rescue tidbit.

Thanks, CeeCee! These are great tips! How wonderful that you had the experience to enable you to help the rest of us!!!

4. mss @ Zanthan Gardens - May 26, 2008

How upsetting to find the dead goldfish. Curse you, raccoons!

Yesterday we went shopping for a “Have-a-Hart” electric fence but couldn’t find one that fit our needs (or our budget). So we are stuck with the netting for awhile longer. We are still thinking of solutions. AJM wants to build some sort of pond cover that we can remove in the daytime but that won’t crush the plants.

I’ve used ammonia-soaked rags–not around the pond but to get the raccoons out from under our house long enough to close up the entryways they were using. They seemed somewhat effective but you have to soak the rags every night.

“Curse you, raccoons” is right! Too bad there’s not a removable wire-mesh cover like the ones used on portable fire pits. But then, of course, I could just see a group of raccoons blandly lifting it off, helping themselves, and replacing it…

5. deb - May 26, 2008

So sorry about the goldfish. How sad. We have become so attached to ours. At another home, we had trouble with one getting into a dog food container even though it was metal and had a tight lid. You would think the porch light coming on and a grown man yelling at it would scare it off. Not so, it just glared at us and kept eating. Thankfully, we don’t have a problem with them here.

Ha! I can just see that, Deb. We occasionally have skunks and ‘possums as well as raccoons who enjoy eating the outdoor cats’ food, and turning on the porch light and staring pointedly at them has absolutely no effect. The ‘possums were such oblivious visitors that we eventually named them Snout and Sprout (the smaller one). Mercifully, they all seem to have departed. I don’t think the fish-eating raccoon is the same one who drops by in the winter, but who knows…

6. Cinj - May 27, 2008

I think we had some racoons in our garbage can last week. It didn’t help that the can was already delapitated though. In the past neighborhood dogs have knocked the can over and riffled through the stuff. I knew this time was different though, as EVERY bag was ripped open and throughly ransaked as no dog could do. Grr. We have also have fox, bear, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits but so far as I can tell they haven’t caused us any trouble yet. Our 3 main pests include neighbor’s dogs, deer, and raccoons.

The garbage can is now locked in the garage. You wouldn’t think the silly animals would even want to go through our garbage now that we have a compost pile. (I have noticed that some of the food that I’ve placed in there has been removed as well) Crazy critters!

Yow, Cinj! Dogs, deer, and raccoons–all you need are coyotes and you’d have a real pest fest! Good plan to lock the trash can in the garage.

7. kate - May 27, 2008

So maybe the pigeons aren’t so bad after all = at least they haven’t gotten to the goldfish. Raccoons can be ornery critters, besides being wily. I remember hearing banging outdoors and watched in amazement as a raccoon tipping up a can of baby formula to get those last drops out. I’ll never forget that … nor the time my cat Hazel decided to have a standoff with the same raccoon. As you say, they are large. She was unfazed and annoyed with me for chasing off the raccoon. I hope you can find some way to keep the little buggers out.

Goodness, Kate! Your Hazel must be really something. My cats won’t even stand up to a ‘possum, much less a skunk (thank goodness) or raccoon!

8. Gail - May 27, 2008

Years ago a raccoon moved into our chimney and nested there (while we were out of town)…a friend mentioned that vinegar soaked diapers (cloth then) would deter them. We soaked that diaper and put it in the chimney and she moved out within a half hour. Don’t know how well vinegar will work outdoors but you might give it a try!

gail

Good grief, Gail! That is awesome–I never heard of that! Thanks for letting us know!!!

9. Becca - May 29, 2008

We finally got our pond set up. James worked on it for Memorial Day and I bought one goldfish today (my butterfly koi will come later, I hope). Anyway, I took your advice about that clay pipe. The blasted fish won’t come out of it!! Our place must be that scary, eh? Who knew the neighbor’s cat would use it for a watering hole??

Our local nurseryman was kind enough to give us tadpoles and minnows as well.

How fun, Becca! I’ve resisted the temptation to steal one of the neighbor’s pickerel frogs for our water garden; they’re so much fun to watch! As for your fish, he’ll come out once he’s acclimated. No worries!

10. Praesidium - June 21, 2008

Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

cheers, Praesidium!

Oops, my fault, Praesidium! Point simply being that raccoons are usually able to get the better of us early in the season, but if we’re persistent, we’ll enjoy our water garden once they’ve moved on. Thanks for your patience and kind comment!

11. Becca - June 25, 2008

I have to tell you, “praesidium” visited my blog as well. I’m thinking it’s some kind of scam b/c they left the very same comment at my place…

Thanks, Becca! You could certainly be right!


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