Research Report #28— Raccoon

Raccoon © David Johnson

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the report: Raccoon. February 1977 (Draft). Daniel Smiley.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus: Dan Smiley and I always liked to say that there is a sizable group of organisms, like many birds and mammals, that live in the shadow of humans and take advantage of what we have to offer. This would include such attributes as habitats, housing, and food. The Raccoon fits nicely into this equation. In this Research Report, Dan summarizes his 50+ years of general observations of Raccoons, with, as he says, no specific research objective. At the time of this report, the first young Peregrine Falcons were fledging on the Shawangunk cliffs. In that regard, the presence of Raccoons on the cliffs was considered a predatory threat to the young birds.

The Eastern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) is today a common native mammal in the Shawangunks. It has been well known and described since colonial times. It is an omnivore and a very adaptable and nimble animal, “….clever….and have not been slow to take advantage of what humans have done to nature.” Dan felt that “my studies of ecology have gradually clarified for me the picture of complexity of the interrelationship between mankind and raccoons in this region.” He goes on to say, “raccoon food is now more abundant coming from rubbish barrels, dumps, corn fields, other vegetable and fruit crops, and carrion of various kinds.” The Raccoon population is mostly influenced by food availability and disease, and to a lesser extent, hunting, trapping, and locally, road kills. We get some indication of 19th century numbers from a New Paltz Independent newspaper clipping dated January 18, 1895, reporting from the Trapps that “Elting Harp recently purchased 11 skins of coons caught by John Van Leuven of the Traps. Mr. Van Leuven is a famous coon hunter and has caught 17 in all this season.”

Illustration from “Zoology of New York, or the New-York Fauna” by James E. De Kay © 1842

In the five decades that Dan documented his Raccoon observations, he felt that “the population of raccoons has increased greatly, despite marked short-term fluctuations.” From the early 1920s to the early 1930s, seeing a Raccoon “at Mohonk was a rarity.” It was only in 1932 that Dan noted a Raccoon eating “human food” outside an employee’s home. On September 22, 1932 at about 9:00pm, Dan clearly described in his species card file record seeing “four (evidently an adult and three nearly grown young)….on Minnewaska Road about 200 yards east of Coxing Bridge.” He says “the old one dashed off without stopping, but the young just ran off the road and crouched. I stopped the ford and got out with a flashlight and was able to walk up to within three feet of one and touched him with a stick. He did not try to run but just crouched.”

Observation record from the Daniel Smiley Research Center archives © Mohonk Preserve
Raccoon and Fox Tracks in Mud © Stephen Hart

From 1933 to 1942, Dan only recorded Raccoons twice, each noted “several miles from Mohonk.” By the late 1940s, the numbers were on the increase. The NYS Conservation Department reported to Dan in April, 1949, that with an increasing Raccoon population, “some had died of a virus.” In July and October, 1949, there were two Raccoons documented with rabies. Dan felt that the Raccoon population was not the source of the rabies outbreak, “but (was) only incidentally involved in the virus-fox-skunk-dog interrelationship.” By the end of 1949, Dan noted the Raccoon population was “abundant” at Mohonk.

Raccoon by Awosting Lake at Minnewaska State Park © David Johnson

In the 1950s and 1960s Dan notes Raccoon population fluctuations. In the 1950s, Fletcher Smiley reported Raccoons as being abundant and a problem at the Minnewaska Mountain Houses. In 1960, Dan felt the population was “high and by 1963 very high.” By the late 1960s, canine distemper was taking the population down again. The year 1969 was “a significant year for Mohonk raccoons,” as the open burning of garbage was ended. Dan noted the population was down in 1970. In the first half of the 1970s, the population “seemed to stabilize at a fairly high level….and they continued to be a problem around the Mohonk kitchen and garbage bins.”

© Celeste Brunell

In the over 40 years since Dan wrote his report, Raccoons have remained part of our research interest. Not only on the basis of population, but also in terms of species interactions, for example the relationship between the Raccoon population and numbers of Wild Turkeys, and the relationship between the Raccoon and the Eastern Coyote. The raccoon population has remained fairly high, with, as Dan said, “marked short-term fluctuations.” In the last four decades, Raccoons have had noted bouts of sarcoptic mange, canine distemper, and rabies. A high population in 1987, led to the reported live trapping and removal of over 50 problem animals from one area, with many more remaining!

Female Allegheny woodrat nursing young © Alan Cressler via Arkive

In the fall of 1992, a research partnership between the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Endangered Species Unit and Mohonk Preserve undertook a “pioneering” multiyear research project to try to determine the cause of the complete extirpation of the native Allegheny Woodrat (Neotoma floridana magister) from New York State and Shawangunk cliffs. Woodrats were first documented by Dan Smiley as being absent in their normal talus den sites around the Shawangunks in 1977, where he and his brother Keith Smiley had known them from their youth. Thirty radio collared animals from an extant Woodrat population in West Virginia were brought to the Mohonk Preserve and were closely monitored for months after their release in and around the Bonticou Crag talus. Because of the frequency of the radio transmitters, any dead Woodrats could be located and some that were able to be retrieved were necropsied by DEC staff to determine their cause of death. The shocking result was a direct relationship between the Raccoon and it’s common parasitic roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, the eggs of which are found commonly in Raccoon droppings. The undigested seeds in those droppings were attractive and fed upon by the overlapping population of Woodrats, and the roundworm eggs were picked up internally, to their detriment. This interrelationship, and the questions of the why here and why now are still to be determined. However, there are still no Allegheny Woodrats here.

© David Johnson

Dan ended his Research Report with a sentiment then that rings true today: “It seemed obvious that whether we like it or not raccoons and humans are going to have to learn to live together with some adjustments by both.”

Read the report: Raccoon. February 1977 (Draft). Daniel Smiley.

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With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.

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Mohonk Preserve

Mohonk Preserve

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.

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