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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Learning to live and let live

Attitude adjustment helps when faced with masked raider

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 8/6/18

Live and let live.

That’s become my philosophy after 33 years living out here in the woods.

And it’s a philosophy I had to think about again recently when a raccoon started raiding our …

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Learning to live and let live

Attitude adjustment helps when faced with masked raider


Live and let live.

That’s become my philosophy after 33 years living out here in the woods.

And it’s a philosophy I had to think about again recently when a raccoon started raiding our bird feeders. Raccoons aren’t native to the North Country and like a lot of critters moving up from the south, their recent appearance isn’t necessarily welcomed by all.

Raccoons, perhaps, pose more issues than most new residents of the region. They are remarkably good, after all, at getting into just about everything. Their front paws are amazingly dexterous, and they use them just like hands. In fact, I often think of raccoons as the closest thing to a wild primate here in Minnesota, even though they don’t quite have an opposable thumb. As we recently learned from the now-famous ascent of the 25-story UBS Building in St. Paul by what appeared to a raccoon ninja, their ability to climb is practically a superpower. While my feeder protection system can easily keep out the red squirrels, it has proven no match for our masked interloper.

There was a time in my life when a raider like this might have been greeted with a taste of hot lead. Over the years, I occasionally went on the warpath against a too-clever red squirrel, hoping that his tricks for getting into the feeders wouldn’t spread to the general population. The trusty .22 used to get a fair amount of use as a result.

But I guess I’ve mellowed in recent years. I’ve decided it’s really just a matter of attitude adjustment, and since then I’ve realized that the antics of the red squirrels are every bit as entertaining as the parade of feathered friends that visit each day.

Besides, it was apparent that our latest feeder raider is a mom, although we’ve yet to see her with young ones. But momma raccoons generally leave their young ones hidden in a safe place while they go out to eat. And if you’ve ever seen a litter of young raccoons, well you probably know why we wouldn’t want to leave them without a mother.

Once they get a bit older, they should start trailing along with her. Which means we could come home one day soon to find a whole family of raccoons staring at us from the bird feeder.

Our new dog, Loki, who might be expected to keep such raiders at bay, has shown little interest in the raccoon. I’ve pointed it out to him more than once. He watches it with some interest and, once, even growled for a second before deciding to take a nap.

It’s probably for the best, since raccoons can be pretty tough customers in a fight. Our late dog, Penny, a beefy, 90-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback mixed with a little pit bull, once tangled with a good-sized raccoon. As the dog caught up to the animal, I assumed the raccoon wasn’t long for this world. Penny was built like a tank and had jaws like a vise and she pounced on that raccoon in full attack mode. The fur was flying and the shrieking was blood-curdling as I ran up to them, but before I got there, Penny was yelping and the raccoon had sunk his teeth into her upper lip and was hanging on for dear life.

As I approached the fracas, I had no idea how I was going to free the dog from its predicament, but fortunately the raccoon let go and waddled off into heavy cover. Penny didn’t need any coaxing to stay put. She had clearly had enough. And this was a dog that had no trouble chasing off timber wolves.

Loki, a lean, 50-pound “free to good home” mutt, would do best to steer clear.

Raccoons are still pretty uncommon in our area, although their population certainly appears to be increasing. Severe winters were once the limiting factor for the species here, but the rapid warming of our winters, along with deer feeding, have undoubtedly helped them to survive. Raccoons don’t hibernate, which means they can’t just sleep through the winter like bears, chipmunks, and a number of other mammals do. But the relative lack of food in winter poses a challenge for raccoons and they are known to become very inactive for extended periods during the height of winter, often holing up in a hollow tree or underground den.

Raccoons are considered to be highly intelligent, particularly in manipulating things with their hand-like paws. In one early study, raccoons demonstrated the ability to quickly figure out how to open a wide range of complex locks and can distinguish different symbols. They are also known to have excellent memories and have demonstrated that they can remember how to solve complicated problems as much as three years later. They have a similar density of neurons in their cerebral cortex to many primates and are believed to be the equal to monkeys in terms of problem-solving ability.

The most notable behavior of a raccoon is their tendency to “wash” their food with their hands, although it’s pretty clear this is not done out of a desire for good hygiene. Raccoons have a highly-developed sense of touch, which they use to examine the food they eat, and it’s believed that water can intensify their touch sense by softening their front paws.

Even when munching sunflower seeds in our feeder, the momma raccoon uses her front paws to handle the sunflower seeds before stuffing them into her mouth. While I know some folks will dispatch a raccoon that shows up in their yard, I’m happy for the chance to watch more and learn more about one of our more recent North Country residents. At least here on the ridge on the edge of the Lost Lake Swamp, we live and let live.


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