Urban Raccoons in Winter

I hadn’t seen the raccoons that live in the Riverside Park retaining wall for some time.

Nice view.

I believe their numbers were cut down during the great raccoon rabies epidemic of 2010.  I once saw as many as six raccoons come out of this hole, like clowns from a clown car.  But lately, I’ve seen only two.

Two waschbären, or wash bears, as the Germans call raccoons. (from my archives)

And for the past few weeks, I haven’t seen any.

The raccoon den in February 2011 after a snowstorm.

Watching raccoons in winter is a bit trickier than in spring or summer. In wintry weather, raccoons may curl up in their dens for days at a stretch, sleeping away the cold. But in a bizarrely mild winter like the current one, the reason I haven’t seen them is more likely due to the simple fact that I don’t walk regularly in the park after dark.

Raccoons, even in New York City, are primarily nocturnal creatures, emerging as the sun sets to start their day. In summer, when light lingers well after nine pm, they are easy to spot on a leisurely evening dog walk.

Riverside Park sunset over Hudson River

But in February, night closes in on the city before dinner, let alone before the evening walk.

Sparkling New Jersey

And though I love the park at night, caution has been etched into my city soul by growing up and living in Manhattan throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. I try to be reasonably cautious, limiting my night walks in the park which, in turn, limits my opportunities for raccoon sightings and other strange night visions.

A dog walks in the night park. (Its owner was not far behind.)

But after not seeing the raccoons for a while, I started to wonder: Are they healthy? Are they even there? So a couple of weeks ago, the dog and I went into the park shortly after dusk on several mild days to seek them.  And there they were, looking as healthy as ever. (I’ve enhanced the photos, as most were too dark to see.)

One raccoon was already a little distance north on the wall,

Wall walker

while the other seemed to be backing out of the den.

Backing out the front door

It turned around and took in the view. After watching for a while longer, we left.

Who's watching whom?

But wait. It was only later when I looked at my photos that I realized, a la David Hemming in Antonioni’s Blow-up, that there was a third pair of eyes, glowing in the darkness of the den.

Mystery glow.

Let’s enhance that photo, and see who’s there.

Aha. Revelation.

So it appears that at least three raccoons are living in the den this winter.

We’ll have to wait and see what spring brings.

Check out the archives for lots more on NYC raccoons!

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Explore posts in the same categories: 2012, In the City, NYC Parks, raccoons, Riverside Park, Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History, Winter

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8 Comments on “Urban Raccoons in Winter”

  1. p hoey Says:

    Loved the essay with all those marvelous photos of lit-up eyes peering out at us. As you say, who’s watching whom or is it a
    mutual fascination. Doggone, but they’re charmin ‘varmints!

  2. CGJ Says:

    Like “clowns from a clown car” …a perfect description!

  3. Jenny Says:

    I’m so glad that you wrote of raccoons. They are one of my favorite animals. My admiration for them began in childhood – during our annual visit to northern Wisconsin we’d go to the bar and grill where they’d lure teh animals by stringing wonderbread on a clothesline. The raccoons – absurdly cute, viewed from the other side of a long picture window – would straddle and monkeybar the line until they got to their white bread reward. As I child I didn’t worry too much about the questionable nature of this practice, focusing instead on the remarkable cuteness and dexterity exhibited by the animals. As an adult I like to think of the raccoon whenever I start feeling suffocated by urban living. They’re just so good at making the most of where they are – and in such a sneaky, wily way, too. I always take heart and chin up when I think of their quick hands and inexhaustible gumption.


    • Thanks for the great comment, Jenny. I can just see the scene with the raccoons and the wonderbread. They are remarkable animals, unbelievably adaptable to whatever life dishes out. Apparently, the flexibility of being an omnivore equates with greater intelligence, problem-solving and adaptability. You can certainly see this is two other species with growing populations & ranges: humans and coyotes. Thanks for visiting.

  4. Barbara Says:

    Raccoons are the bane of my two dogs’ existence – the mere mention of the word sends them to the door barking. They will spend hours barking in the drive shed at one that has curled up in the rafters for a daytime nap.

    Their nocturnal wanderings make the Lab boyz insane since they have both had run-ins and come off much the worse for wear a couple of times. I’ve been fortunate in being able to haul them away quickly most times. But the nightly ruckus means I bring in my bird feeders at night which is what the ‘coons love to explore, particularly the ones filled with tasty suet.

    And most city dwellers dislike them because they root around in garbage and tear up stuff.

    But I still, despite disapproval from the Lab boyz, think they are very cute. As Bill says though they’re pretty fierce and one took on my biggest dog and gave his head a thorough going over one time, probably why he dislikes them so much.

    I’m delighted that you have the chance to see them and love your photos. What a great post Melissa – fun, interesting and informative.


    • Barbara, I love that you still are able to enjoy the raccoons’ behavior, even after they have tussled with your dogs. They really are impossible creatures, but so fascinating and smart they deserve respect. And of course, they are endlessly comic to watch. I have had hilarious and frustrating encounters with them in other places I’ve lived. In Dallas, a mother nested under the house and when the babies were mobile, they got up into the central air system and literally ran through the walls all over the house. Kind of scary, really. On Cape Cod, a raccoon twice came in through the chimney of a rental house, and ran everywhere, leaving sooty little black handprints on the furniture, floor and walls. Another time, we watched as a raccoon managed to haul an extremely heavy garbage can by its bungee cord across a clearing to the edge of the woods, where it just couldn’t move it any further. And – my favorite encounter – a racoon once tore a perfect 4-inch circle in a window screen above a kitchen counter, reached inside, ripped open a new bag of English muffins, took one (just one, mind you) and left with the muffin. Breakfast for one in the woods, I guess. Anyway, it’s very different watching in NYC, where I don’t have homeowner worries.

  5. WildBill Says:

    Raccoons are certainly one our most adaptable cold weather species. Their range is huge and they are found in wilderness, rural, suburban, and urban habitats. They are pound for pound one of the fiercest mammals and aren’t afraid of too many predators, save the big ones. A marvelous species and I’m glad you have the opportunity to enjoy them in NYC!


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