Raccoons in Winter

Though Raccoons are nocturnal mammals, I see them quite often during my daytime walks in Eliza Howell Park, especially in late Fall and in Winter. They are usually sleeping and, from all appearances, sleeping very soundly. I realized how just how soundly when I came across one that had selected an open space on the ground for its daytime resting site.

I walked right up to the sleeping animal. It didn’t raise its tucked-in head or move any other part of the body; it seemed totally unaware of me. The only way I was sure it was alive was by the slight rise and fall of its body as it breathed.

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Raccoons do not typically take their daytime rest out in the open like this; I usually see them sleeping in large cavities of trees. Often they select a tree in the bottomland, along the Upper Rouge branch shortly before it reaches the Main branch, where the old willow trees provide many places to crawl into. Their sleeping pattern allows us to see them only from the rear, head hidden, just like the one on the ground.

This tree is used frequently, though not every day.

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Raccoons do not hibernate, but they may sleep away much of the coldest weather, day and night. They add a lot of body weight in the fall and do not really need to eat much in the winter. In milder winter weather, however, they are more active at night, evidenced by their changing day-to-day sleep locations and by their tracks in the mud and snow.

A good place to look for tracks is along the edge of the river, where this picture was taken.

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Raccoon tracks are among the easiest mammal tracks to identify. Both the fore print and the hind print show five toes and might be compared to human prints. The fore print resembles a small human hand and the hind print looks somewhat like a small human foot with very long toes.

The daytime sleeping spots are more like roosts than dens, just some place to curl up for a long winter nap.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

It is in the winter, however, that Raccoons also select real dens for nesting, deeper cavities in trees or perhaps in a log or a burrow in the ground. They mate in late winter and females give birth to (usually) 2 – 5 kits in the spring.

Occasionally, a Raccoon is seen with its eyes open in daytime in the winter, as in this picture. This location may possibly be a nesting den.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

There is much that happens in Eliza Howell Park that those of us who visit only in daytime miss. I sometimes follow mammal trails like this one and wonder how many different species and individuals are foraging along the river at night.

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Thanks to the Raccoon practice of daytime resting that allows it to be visible, I know that it is definitely one common Eliza Howell nocturnal species.

Inconspicuous Bark Specialist: The Brown Creeper

Occasionally between October and April I notice a small bird dropping down to the base of a large tree trunk during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. It is a Brown Creeper, a bird that can be easily missed, camouflaged as it is for its role as a bark specialist.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The Brown Creeper is the only member of the treecreeper family of birds that is found in North America. It feeds mostly on the insects (and their eggs and larvae) and on the spiders that it gleans from cracks in the bark, creeping up the trunk of trees from the bottom to near the top, probing in cracks in the bark as it goes. It then usually flies down to the bottom of a nearby tree and starts up that one.

Even the Brown Creeper’s nest is typically in/under loose tree bark. Detroit is at the southern edge of the Brown Creeper’s breeding range, but so far I have not seen any in the park during breeding season. They show up here in migration in the fall and spring and are sometimes found in the winter. Their presence is unpredictable and they are always in very small numbers; I see only one or two on the few days that I see any at all. (This range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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While it usually climbs the trunks of larger trees, it can be found at times on smaller trees as well. Here, a side view shows the light-colored underside.

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Photo by Sharon Korte

This picture and the one below show how the Brown Creeper’s anatomy is suited to its creeping-up-the-tree and gleaning-insects-from-bark role. Note the long curved claws, the long stiff tail, and the decurved (downward curved) beak.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The Brown Creeper is a bird that is well named. Once seen and its behavior watched, it is not likely to be confused with other North American birds. Though inconspicuous, it is sometimes the highlight of a winter walk in the woods.