It was midday on a hot, muggy day in June. There were four juvenile raccoons on an island thirty or so feet from the boardwalk where I and two museum visitors stood watching them. An adult raccoon (I assume the mother) was in the lead. She was trying to coax the little ones into the water.
What were the raccoons doing on the island? There’s a wood duck nest box on the island. It was installed about five years ago to entice the hooded mergansers who winter here in the museum’s wetlands to stay for the nesting season. They, like wood ducks, nest in tree cavities. There’s a predator guard installed on the tree that the nest box is attached to. The predator guard is intended to keep critters like raccoons from climbing the tree and robbing the nest of its eggs should a duck decide to nest in the box.
Branches from adjacent trees have grown out and over the predator guard allowing any land or water based critters easy access to the nest box. I must admit that I was negligent in pruning back the overgrown tree limbs this past winter. Being expert climbers, raccoons apparently climbed out along one of those limbs over to the nest box and found it a comfortable and safe place to raise a family, an island treehouse with a view.
On this day, the mother raccoon appeared to be making an attempt at getting her four youngsters off the island and out into the real world. At first, it seemed as though she was planning to point the youngsters in our direction. Seeing us, me and the two museum members standing there watching them, the raccoon parent decided to take an alternate route off the island. She lead her troop to the east end of the island. There, she grabbed one of the little bandits in her mouth and set off across the water.
As the mother and cub were midway across the sixty some feet of open water, one of the remaining three cubs on the island made it clear it had no intention of being left behind. It jumped into the water and began to swim. The little raccoon caught up to its parent and sibling just before reaching the far side. All three, the mother and two cubs, had made it safely to shore.
It was nearly twenty minutes before I saw the mother again. She must have tucked the two cubs in a previously staked out, temporary home somewhere in the woods next to the wetlands. There are many boulders, root systems and even abandoned concrete culvert pipes in which to hide on the east side of the wetlands. The next time I saw her she was swimming back to the island to retrieve the rest of her clan. There were still two very anxious cubs on the island.
Once again, the mother grabbed one of her cubs gently but securely in her jaws, waded out into the water and started to swim. When she was about a third of the way across the other cub launched itself into the water, catching up to mom at the halfway point. It tried to climb aboard, on top of the mother’s head, forcing the mother to submerge. The cub that she held within her jaws broke loose and it too tried to climb aboard the larger raccoon’s head.
They all went under. The two cubs surfaced first, still trying to grab onto their mother, who was struggling mightily just to stay above water. Finally, all three surfaced and began swimming. The mother took off in the direction she had been going. The two cubs swam back to the island, the last known place of safety.
It was another ten minutes before the mother again swam over to the island. Once more, she snatched up one of the cubs and began swimming. The second cub jumped in after them, again catching the pair at the halfway point. As much as she tried, the mother couldn’t keep the two of them afloat and all three went under in the struggle. Tense moments followed. I had visions of the mother drowning. But again, she broke loose and swam to shore. One cub motored back to the island and the other to a small island closer to the “mainland,” towards the boardwalk.
Minutes later the mother set off in the direction of the cub on the “mainland” island. She snatched up the little bandit, dragging it along the edge of the water and deposited it in a culvert pipe on the south side of the wetland. They emerged after several minutes and were last seen heading in the general direction that the first two cubs were deposited, on the east side of the wetlands. She would get her cub there by the land route.
It’s rather anticlimactic, but I was called away to duty before the mother returned to retrieve the final cub. I’d like to say that the mother was able to get the last of her cubs safely to the mainland. Although, I can’t say for sure what happened to the last raccoon, mother raccoons are determined and dedicated parents, the instinct is a strong one. I doubt very much that she would leave the last cub on the island.
The raccoon population here at the museum is certainly not lacking for individuals. Their tracks are everywhere. One or two fewer raccoons wouldn’t be missed. But after witnessing this family’s struggle, I feel confident in saying that there are currently four more healthy young raccoons roaming the museum’s campus.