Thursday, February 2, 2017

Hello, Raccoons!

photo by Sandy Bacon

Early one January morning, as the sun was beginning to rise, I opened my back door and was about to step outside when I noticed something unusual in the spot where I would normally place my foot. It was round, furry, brownish-gray, and about the size of a basketball. And it was breathing. Yikes!

I quietly closed the door, and then rapped on the slider to see if the creature would startle. It didn’t. It remained rolled up in a tight little ball, and appeared not to hear me. If it was sleeping, it was a very sound sleep. More likely, it was sick.

Sick raccoon on the doorstep.

I was pretty sure it was a wild animal, and not a confused housecat. I couldn’t see its head or tail, but it seemed to be the right size for a raccoon. I didn’t want to take any chances – it seems to me that disturbing any sort of slumbering animal is a bad idea --  so I chose a different exit. An hour later, the ball of fur was still there, still apparently snoozing.

When half of the day had passed and the creature had not stirred, I contacted Marshfield’s Animal Control Officer, Alyssa Ryan. I described the situation, and she said she would come check it out. “No matter how cute it may be,” Ryan warned, “do not try to pet it.”

I wasn’t at home when Animal Control stopped by. After assessing the situation, Ryan reported to me that the breathing ball of fur on the doorstep was indeed a raccoon, and it was definitely ill, probably with distemper, which is epidemic in our area right now. Sadly, the animal had to be put down.

photo by Sandy Bacon

Raccoons are not an uncommon sight on our back deck. Our property borders the woods and a freshwater wetland, so there is ample land nearby for wild animals to roam. In the mornings, we put out seed for the birds. Sometimes after the sun has set, a family of raccoons will come by and brazenly scarf down whatever bits remain. It’s amusing, if not unnerving, to turn on the light and see a masked critter look up and stare directly at you, with an expression on its face that seems to ask, “So what are you going to do about it?”

Raccoons are a common sight on the South Shore, especially at dusk and dawn – and the hours in between. Mostly they are active at night, but if you see one during the day, there is no cause for alarm, unless it behaves strangely – appearing disoriented or partially paralyzed, or perhaps wandering in a circle. Raccoons can exist comfortably in all sorts of habitats – farms, forests, suburban neighborhoods, and even cities – and typically make their dens in trees or in burrows abandoned by other creatures. Unfortunately for us, this can sometimes lead to raccoon dens in chimneys, sheds, attics, and the close-in areas under decks and porches.

Raccoons are easy to distinguish from other mammals of their size, due to the mask-like black and white color patterns on their face, and their striped black, gray and white tails. Their mating season runs from January to March. After a gestation period of just over two months, new cubs are born – most often in the mid-spring – with anywhere from 3 to 7 per litter. After another five months or so, they become independent, but usually remain with their family for much of the first year. They can grow in size to anywhere between 12 and 36 pounds, and range from 2-3 feet in length (tail included).

Raccoons are omnivores. If animal sources of sustenance are readily available – things like crabs, young birds and muskrats, turtles and their eggs – they’ll happily chow down. They may already be plotting to raid your chicken coop! Raccoons also consume nuts, berries and seeds, whether procured in the wild or in the backyard. Birdseed and suet are tempting, of course, but whatever food you’ve left in your unsecured trash barrels could also make a nice feast.

Outdoors is probably okay, but you don’t want raccoons taking up residence in your home. Some ways to prevent this are: securing your trash and compost against looters; keeping pet food indoors to decrease temptation; and capping or closing off chimneys, attics and the dark areas under porches and decks.

The creature on my back doorstep was probably suffering from distemper, which is the second most common cause of death for raccoons. There are actually two types of distemper – canine and feline – stemming from two separate viruses. Both are highly contagious, and begin with cold or flu-like symptoms that eventually lead to more debilitating conditions such as pneumonia, anorexia and brain damage. Neither virus has a cure, so when a raccoon with distemper is discovered, the standard treatment is euthanasia. Most sick raccoons don’t make contact with humans, however, so of greater concern is the spread of disease among animals. Humans are not susceptible to the virus, but our pets are, if they do not receive regular vaccines against the disease. Another good reason to go for that annual round of shots!

You can learn lots more about raccoons via the following two links, which I found very helpful while writing this article.

by Kezia Bacon
 January 2017 

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

7+ Walking Places for 2017

A view of Long Tom Pond at the Hoyt Hall Preserve in Marshfield.

Every January, the North and South Rivers Watershed Association sponsors a New Year’s Day Walk. Typically this annual event -- which is free and open to the public -- showcases a recently acquired conservation area on the South Shore. But occasionally the event offers access to a privately owned property within the watershed. The 2017 walk is one of those occasions.

This year’s event, which begins at 1pm on Sunday January 1st, takes place at the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Hanover (405 Washington Street). Participants will follow trails through 100 acres of privately owned woodland to the Third Herring Brook, a rare opportunity to view the dam removal project that is currently in progress. For more information, visit

Whether or not NSRWA’s New Year’s Day Walk fits into your schedule, you may be looking for other places to take a stroll in 2017. We are fortunate, here on the South Shore, to have access to an abundance of nature preserves. Chances are, if walking in the woods is the type of thing you enjoy, you’re already familiar with World’s End in Hingham and the Norris Reservation in Norwell, local favorites that are both managed by The Trustees. You probably know the Mass Audubon properties too – Daniel Webster and North River Wildlife Sanctuaries, both in Marshfield.

What follows is a list of a few other lesser-known properties worthy of your attention. All are open to the public, generally from dawn until dusk. Before you go, visit the manager’s website to download a trail map.

Hoyt-Hall Preserve - Careswell Street/Route 139, Marshfield. This recently-opened preserve features several walking trails around Long Tom Pond and through 123 acres of woods, freshwater marsh and red cedar swamp, with links to the Old Colony Railroad and the Historic Winslow House. Managed by The Wildlands Trust.

Rockland Town Forest – North Avenue, Rockland. A small (39.5 acres) but truly special place to stretch one’s legs, the Rockland Town Forest’s narrow paths, boardwalks and bridges lead visitors through the wetlands that surround French Stream. This place is especially enchanting in the spring and summer when the trees and shrubs are leafy and green.

North Hill Marsh - Mayflower Street, Duxbury. A network of walking trails through pine and oak woodlands takes you all the way around the freshwater marsh and reservoir, with plenty of interesting vantage points. These 943 acres, managed by Mass Audubon and Duxbury Conservation, are prime territory for birding and other wildlife observation.

Wildcat Conservation Area – Circuit Street, Norwell. Over 100 quiet acres, with trails through the woods, and the occasional bench on which to pause and reflect. The narrow trails lead you past old stone walls and along historic Wildcat Hill. Managed by Norwell Conservation.

Weir River Farm and Turkey Hill – Turkey Hill Lane, Hingham.  Catch a glimpse of the agricultural landscape of days past on these 75 hilltop acres. The view of Boston Harbor is stunning. Plus there are pastures, woodland trails, and a working barnyard, with additional trails that link to Whitney & Thayer Woods. Managed by The Trustees.

• Bates Lane Conservation Area – Clapp Road, Scituate. This property and its surroundings comprise over 400 acres of contiguous conservation land in the West End of Scituate, most of it former farmland. A network of well-marked and well-tended trails leads through the woods, past glacial erratics and across small streams. Managed by Scituate Conservation.

• Lansing Bennett Forest – Union Bridge Road, Duxbury. This historic property was once home to a sawmill and later a trout farm. Today it is 344 acres of mostly wooded upland, with glacial erratics and kettle holes, plus boardwalks that traverse the red cedar swamp that borders Phillips Brook. Managed by Duxbury Conservation.

by Kezia Bacon
December 2016

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit