The toothy snarl was frozen in place. On the shoulder of the road, the raccoon sprawled like a summer hound. Except this ring-tailed animal was dead.

I guessed by its size that it was a male, just like the three other dead raccoons I passed this week. Each of them was duped by tepid February temperatures rather than bawdy female raccoons. In a normal year male raccoons in Minnesota, stirred by mating urges, emerge from dormancy before the females in early to mid-March.

Two days earlier I overheard someone at the grocery store titter, “I love this gorgeous weather!” And while it might have felt good to forego gloves and a stocking cap, there is a dark side to it. Could it be that we are on our way to a fourth consecutive warmest year on record?

While not true hibernators, raccoons experience a sluggish state of dormancy called carnivore lethargy. Their vital functions do not plummet as in true hibernators like woodchucks, frogs or bats. The raccoon idles through winter mostly sleeping but with its metabolism easing along rather than put on hold.

Last fall, while their fur coats thickened, raccoons were accumulating as much fat in their bodies as they could. Fat is winter fuel. With the approach of cold and snow, raccoons make their way to winter quarters which can include hollow trees, abandoned buildings or even attics.

Over the course of an Upper Midwest winter, a sleeping raccoon can lose up to half its body weight. When it leaves its winter den earlier than normal, it burns some of its valuable fat reserves. Foraging for food in February is difficult and compromises their health.

Native Americans referred to each month as a moon. The second month of the year was known as the “hunger moon.” By this time food and fat reserves are running low. A “false spring” that activates denning raccoons jeopardizes their survival.

Not only are humans the most numerous species of mammal on the planet, we are clearly the most adaptable. We can live comfortably in the desert or on the ice pack at the poles. While we may celebrate a nearly tropical February we must consider the ramifications on other plants and animals.
I drove away from the stiffened raccoon. A pair of crows watched from the top of a tamarack tree just down the road. While the untimely warmth hastened this raccoon’s death, the cold flesh will provide calories for the survival of scavengers.

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