It’s easy to think of raccoons as little bandits stalking through the neighborhood looking for their next meal.
They’re often notable for knocking over trashcans and gorging themselves on your unwanted leftovers in the dead of night. But scavenging the edges of human settlements is really only one facet of their diet.
One of the first things I learned in my training to be a wildlife tracker is the way to understand animals is by understanding what they like to eat under all different circumstances.
In the case of raccoons, their diet is especially revealing and variable depending on the circumstances.
So what do raccoons eat? Raccoons are opportunistic scavengers and will eat just about anything they can find. They’re omnivores who eat plant foods as well as meat. The majority of their diet is made up of invertebrates and plants.
Essentially if it’s available to them, a raccoon is probably going to eat it so their diet isn’t very tough to predict.
However like most other omnivores, raccoons are an incredibly adaptable species, sometimes having dramatically different food sources depending on their location & time of year.
They do have their favorite foods, but generally, a raccoon will eat whatever they can find in whatever area they are living.
So let’s take a look at what raccoons are most likely to eat in a variety of different situations.
Raccoons Adapt To Their Environment
The exact diet of a raccoon is sometimes hard to pin down because they eat different things in different environments and times of year.
That’s essentially what it means to be an opportunistic omnivore. They take whatever they can get most easily and effortlessly. That’s why raccoons don’t mind rifling through your trash bins on occasion.
However living on the scraps of urban settlements is not really what raccoons are designed for.
Their defining characteristic is actually a talent for using paws to manipulate their environment.
In fact, if we were to isolate what is the dominant sense for raccoons, it would have to be touch, especially with their front paws which almost look like human hands.
Raccoons are known to open latches and garbage cans with relative ease. Their paws are good for inspecting whatever food they find, and picking away any pieces they don’t want to eat.
Since raccoons are omnivores they have teeth capable of tearing plants and meat alike, very similar to our own tooth structure with incisors, canines and molars.
When you put all these features together, you have a recipe for a highly intelligent and adaptable animal with remarkably rich and diverse food gathering habits.
Common Foods That Raccoons Eat:
Here are some of the most common foods that raccoons like to eat.
- Frogs & Other Amphibians
- Small Rodents
The list goes on, but it’s important to remember the exact diet of an individual raccoon will change depending on where they live and what they can most easily find there.
Raccoons are problem solvers and don’t mind doing a little work for their food. However, they most often go for the easiest option, making the most of whatever opportunities are currently in abundance.
Do Raccoons Hunt for Their Food?
When it comes to finding easy food sources, hunting isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind, however under the right conditions raccoons can be highly effective hunters.
While it would be technically possible for raccoons to occasionally catch a small rodent like mice or squirrels (especially fresh babies still in the nest), they’re not known for their mammal or bird hunting skills.
Instead, you’re much more likely to find raccoons hunting much more primitive creatures like frogs & snakes, or even insect hunting can be a highly rewarding source of nutrient.
Raccoons are also very well known to steal eggs or hatchlings from birds nests when the opportunity arises.
If you live in a place that has lots of raccoons and notice an intense ball of birds alarming in the forest during spring or early summer, it’s quite possible you could be hearing the alarm signature of a nest robbing raccoon.
Along with hunting activity, raccoons are fair fishermen. They like to live close to the water and will regularly catch small fish and shellfish to munch on. Crayfish and mollusks are a few favorites that they like to pick out.
Most animal trackers who spend time studying raccoons are well familiar with how raccoon trails often follow creeks, streams & around the edges of ponds, retreating to sheltered trees during the daytime.
Outside of city environments, they have a very strong association with water. This is because the greatest abundance of readily hunt-able critters live in wet environments.
Of course, this all depends on the timing & season because raccoons focus their attention wherever food is easiest to get.
Hunting is most likely to occur at times when frogs or crayfish are particularly abundant, making it easier for raccoons to catch more easily.
Otherwise, they hunt when the opportunity arises and mix their diet with other things like berries or fruit & nuts.
Wild VS Urban Raccoon Diets
Probably the biggest influence on what raccoons eat is whether they’re living in a city or a more rural area.
In cities, raccoons tend to do less hunting and more scavenging because that’s the easiest thing to focus on.
They can often be found pilfering through dumpsters and trash cans for the best bits to pad out their diet.
Human activity doesn’t deter them from getting enough food, in fact you’ll often find higher populations of raccoons in cities simply because there’s so much waste.
Raccoons don’t shy away from homes and will absolutely steal pet food that is left out. They may even snatch a fish or two from a decorative pond.
Being so immersed in urban places, some raccoons will eventually get brave enough that they will beg for food from humans.
This is not a behavior you should encourage. Raccoons are meant to be wild and problems with disease, overpopulation & aggression can occur when they get too dependent on people.
As you get further away from dense city environments, raccoon diets gradually become more and more natural.
Raccoons in the wild will forage for anything growing naturally they can find to eat. Fruit and nuts are some of their favorite treats.
Frogs and crayfish are a big staple of a raccoons diet. They will usually keep their dens close to the water in order to have access to them. It wouldn’t be at all unusual to find a wild raccoon skimming the water for something tasty.
In farming country, they’re known to raid chicken houses and steal from pet food bowls that are left outside.
Raccoons will of course pick through a vegetable garden, taking whatever they like. And even in rural areas, the garbage is never off limits in their minds.
What Do Raccoons Eat in the Winter?
During the seasons leading up to winter, raccoons will eat as much as possible in order to store body fat for the cold months to come.
A lot of their body fat is stored in their tail which they will wrap around their bodies to keep themselves warm.
Depending on the type of climate they live in, raccoons could lose anywhere between 14% and 50% of their body weight during the winter.
They spend most of their time in their dens to stay warm. Raccoons may even enter a hibernation-like sleep for several weeks called torpor.
When they do venture out for food, their ability to eat just about anything they come across is a huge help.
During the harsh winter months, they will most likely eat nuts, corn, insects, and small injured animals that they find.
Raccoons in warmer areas don’t have much of a need to worry about the winter.
They won’t have as much trouble finding things to eat. And in densely populated places they will continue to pick through the trash for anything good that’s been left behind.
Should You Leave Food Out For Wild Raccoons?
I do not recommend leaving food out for wild raccoons.
In most places wildlife officials would strongly discourage this activity because it changes the behavior of raccoons.
It can make them more aggressive or destructive. Feeding can also cause population imbalances that increase disease & put pressure on more sensitive species like songbirds that get their eggs stolen.
Raccoons can carry diseases.
While they may be cute, raccoons are still wild animals.
They are known to carry a number of diseases of which rabies is the most prevalent. Feeding them can present an increased danger of being bitten, whether on purpose or by accident.
It’s a danger you can easily avoid by letting them be wild and free.
Raccoons can break into your home.
It might be tempting to put food out for raccoons, but this is an invitation for future issues, especially if you leave it close to home.
These curious critters could potentially try to break in to find more food, or just to see what’s inside.
If you end up leaving for a while or moving out, they know the house is associated with food and may break in just to find out why it’s not being left anymore.
Feeding Raccoons will dull their survival instincts.
Raccoons are clever and incredible problem solvers. It benefits them greatly to have to figure out when you’re going to leave the food for them.
Sometimes people worry that the animals will starve, but in reality starvation would be an extremely rare way for animals to die in the wild.
Feeding Raccoons could increase fights.
Normally raccoons need to search and cover a bit of distance in order to find their food. It’s spread out across different parts of the landscape.
But when you put out food for raccoons, it essentially concentrates their efforts in a much smaller area, which can actually lead to increased stress and territorial fights between local raccoons.
It’s better to let them forage naturally. Raccoons are incredibly adaptable, and you can rest assured that if they come through your yard at night, it means your environment already has enough food for them.
They don’t need our help to survive, and it can have negative consequences.
Raccoons Aren’t Picky Animals
As you can see, there is really no set diet when it comes to raccoons. They pretty much just eat whatever they can find in their habitat.
The most important thing is to make note of what they’re eating in your local area at different times of year.
Whenever you find raccoon tracks, you can be sure there’s a food source nearby, so ask yourself:
- What season is it? Are there any foods in particular abundance right now like bird eggs in spring or apples in fall?
- Where is the nearest water? Are you close to any creeks or frog ponds with small catchable critters?
- How much human activity is in the area?
- What have you observed in the past about how raccoon diets change during spring, summer, fall & winter?
Make some notes about what raccoons are eating in your area, and you’ll be on your way to knowing this highly intelligent animal much more intimately!
Great post! I DISLIKE raccoons (OK, I’m afraid of them :-)), but still of course want to know more about them as a naturalist. This post helps me piece together the places I see tracks – mostly near streams! – and link that info with food sources.
I never thought of the angle that looking at the easiest and closest food sources is a way to track raccoons. They definitely go for the low-hanging fruit!
I will use the food/habitat link to avoid these guys – good to keep in mind on walks where I’ve seen their mini hand prints.
Brian Mertins says
Yeah! We sometimes call this ecological tracking because it uses understanding of ecology to dramatically speed up the tracking process and sometimes even bypass the need to find footprints.
Of course Diana, the bigger question is why are you afraid of Raccoons? Haha, thanks for sharing!
Judith M Gavette says
In the past few weeks we have discovered a Racoon visiting our garden at night. Digging up plants and almost a Rose bush. While I would not wish to harm the Racoon, I would like to know how to prevent it from completely destroying the flower garden. We live in North Phoenix Arizona!
Brian Mertins says
You could try lightly mulching around the base of your roses with a strongly aromatic plant like lemon balm. I’ve been having excellent success keeping raccoons out of my compost using this method. Repeat every week or as needed to keep the scent fresh!