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Nature Notes: Skunk

Ed Robinson
September 20, 2015

If there is a wild creature with a serious public relations issue, it is the skunk.  When I was a kid, the word skunk was used as an insult against dirty, rotten, low-down liars.  You have probably come upon a malodorous wetlands plant called skunk cabbage, and not because of its coloration. How many of us would invite one of these black and white beauties into our homes?

Growing up in the outdoors, I have seen a fair number of skunks, and I have developed a grudging admiration for them.  Grudging?  Well, yes, because I was sprayed by a skunk many years ago early one autumn morning.  I suppose it wasn’t really her fault; I surprised her as I came around the corner while she was digging for food.  And it didn’t turn out so badly since Mom kept me home from school that day!  By the way, tomato juice doesn’t really work so well at removing the smell…..

The word skunk appeared in print as far back as the 1600’s and is thought to have originated in the Algonquin language, “squunck.” These small mammals were new to the first Europeans coming to North America, but members of the skunk family are found all across this continent and in South America.  Their coloration is always distinctive with a stripe down the back, but the colors can range from cream to white, brown to jet black.  Adults only weigh a few pounds, but they command respect in the animal kingdom for obvious reasons.

Skunks use the scent glands at the base of their tail for defense in a harsh environment.  Their eyesight is poor, but they have good hearing and an excellent sense of smell to help locate food.  Short, but powerful legs with long front claws allow the skunk to dig for food, including worms, grubs, moles, tubers and fungi.  They are omnivorous, and they will almost anything from insects to lizards, birds and their eggs, along with berries, grasses and nuts.  With their long coats as protection, skunks are known to relish honey bees.

Skunks tend to forage alone, although they have been seen using communal dens in winter, probably for warmth and security.  They are not true hibernators, but wisely save energy by resting during the long months when food is harder to find.  Their life span is only about 7 years in the wild.  Breeding in done in the late winter, and after a gestation period of 66 days, 4 – 7 kits are born in May.  They are blind, deaf and covered with a soft layer of fur.  They open their eyes at about 3 weeks, consume mother’s milk for about 2 months, and are on their own after their first year.

Just this week I found a piece of skunk pelt in our woods and wondered who ended up eating the pelt’s former owner.  Most larger predators will avoid skunks to avoid the highly potent spray.  Domestic dogs are not so wise in the ways of the wild, and they often come to regret their foolish attacks on skunks.  Great horned owls are the biggest enemy, since they seem to be immune to the power of the spray.  And of course, many skunks lose their lives on our highways.

Skunks are interesting creatures, who help to limit the population of rodents and other small pests.  And they don’t really bother humans all that much.  When I was a boy, the advice was to quietly approach a skunk with a blanket or coat so you could drape it over the skunk and keep it calm (meaning no spray).  Having tried to approach skunks in my younger, stupid days, I would not recommend this approach (their effective range is about 10 feet!).  In practical terms, if you can elevate their back legs, they have limited ability to squeeze their scent glands and spray.  But if a skunk decides to take up residence under your porch call a professional!

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