Signs of Spring 5: Skunks!

A close up of a skunk under a bird feeder

Photo by D. Sillman

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The scientific name of the striped skunk is Mephitis mephitis. “Mephitis” is Latin for “noxious vapor” and is an extremely appropriate genus and species name for this shy, unassuming member of  the mustelid (“weasel”) family of carnivores. The ability of the skunk to use its mercaptan rich musk as a defensive spray has been well represented in fiction and in the real life experiences of many people (not to mention their dogs).  The name “skunk” comes from the Algonquin name for the animal “seganku”. There are a number of less common, but often highly descriptive names for this animal including “polecat” and “infant du diable” (child of the devil) (a term of less than endearment from the early French Canadian trappers and voyageurs).

My son in law, Lee, just sent me a copy of the first historical mention of skunks. It is from an account of a Jesuit Priest in 1634:

“The other is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make of it a symbol of sin. I have seen three or four of them. It has black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and has upon its back two perfectly white stripes, which join near the neck and tail, making an oval which adds greatly to their grace. The tail is bushy and well furnished with hair, like the tail of a Fox; it carries it curled back like that of a Squirrel. It is more white than black; and, at the first glance, you would say, especially when it walks, that it ought to be called Jupiter’s little dog. But it is so stinking, and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto. No sewer ever smelled so bad. I would not have believed it if I had not smelled it myself. Your heart almost fails you when you approach the animal; two have been killed in our court, and several days afterward there was such a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it. I believe the sin smelled by Saint Catherine de Sienne must have had the same vile odor.”

Photo by D. Sillman

A couple of nights ago my dog, Izzy, found one of these “foul dogs of Pluto” out bumbling around under one of our bird feeders. The result was predictable although unfortunate. Deborah scooped Izzy up and deposited her into the bath tub while I mixed up a jug of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap to scrub her with (here’s the recipe from the Humane Society website). The concoction worked well, and Izzy didn’t have to go sleep in the garage!  We’ll get the “dreadful odor throughout our house” cleared up eventually (I hope). I plan to research Saint Catherine de Sienne to see if she might have had some ideas that could help me with the clean up!

This is Izzy’s first skunk encounter. We installed a yard light out front to try to avoid unexpected night-time interactions like this. Our former dog, Kozmo, hated skunks with a deep passion and, as a result, got sprayed repeatedly. He would usually get hit the hardest in his open mouth as he was lunging at the skunk. Fortunately, I came across the de-skunking recipe about halfway through Kozmo’s skunk career. It works so much better than tomato juice! My good friend Steve Hoops (retired chemistry professor from Penn State) once explained to me how the hydrogen peroxide worked to shut off the volatile mercaptan and erase the stench of the skunk, but I forget the details. If he reads this post, maybe he will add the explanation in a comment!

No one who owns a dog has any reason to love skunks. They are, though, useful members of our suburban and rural ecosystems. They help to keep rodent populations under control, and they eat a variety of garden pests (including potato bugs and Japanese beetles) especially when they are in their larval (“grub”) stages.

Photo by D. Sillman

Skunks are omnivorous and will eat whatever is available. Seasonal foods include: in spring and summer, insects (both adult and larval forms) (especially grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, bees and wasps), spiders, toads, frogs, lizards, snakes, mice, chipmunks, turtle eggs and the eggs of ground nesting birds. In the fall and winter, they eat a variety of fruits (including wild grapes, and the fruits of wild vines like Virginia Creeper), carrion, and a many types of plants and plant  parts  (including grasses, leaves, buds) and nuts.  Skunks, like one Izzy met last night, also eat bird seed and may even rip into garbage bags and tip over trash cans.

The skunk is a slow, deliberate creature that is capable under extreme need of a clumsy gallop that can  reach up to 10 mph. It is a very poor climber but is capable of swimming. Its sense of sight, smell and hearing are poor but it is reported to have a very acute sense of touch. It is a nocturnal animal typically becoming active just before sunset and then inactive just prior to sunrise.   During this night-time activity period it typically takes a single rest period of one to two hours usually away from its sleeping den.

Photo by D. Sillman

Skunks by common account are not very intelligent animals. They display, though, good problem solving behaviors to acquire food. They have been described as scratching on the outside of a bee hive to induce the bees to fly out to investigate the noise and intrusion. The skunk then catches and eats the bees as they emerge. Skunks also eat tenebrionid beetles (“stink beetles”) by taking the large beetle in their front paws and rolling it around in the soil until it has exhausted its reserve of irritating, quinone spray. The skunk then is able to eat the beetle without the unpleasantness of the quinones.

Skunks are solitary creatures except during a very brief mating period in late winter or early spring. Adult  males are very active during this mating season and travel widely in search of a receptive mate. During this courtship and mating period large numbers of skunks end up as roadkill on our roads and highways. Males fight each other over females during this courtship and mating period, too. It is interesting, though, that in these aggressive conflicts the males do not utilize their musk as offensive weapons.

Photo by D. Sillman

Last night, two nights after Izzy’s skunk encounter, Deborah and I watched a skunk (probably THE skunk) amble slowly across our field just before sunset and work his/her way to our front yard and the bird feeders. The pictures in this post are all from that encounter. It was interesting to watch a skunk that closely! He/she did not seem at all anxious about returning to the place of its Izzy-interactions.  It is useful in Nature not to dwell on unpleasant or frightening events! I just hope that he/she is not planning to den up under my new sun porch!

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1 Response to Signs of Spring 5: Skunks!

  1. Patrick says:

    While trying to catch a raccoon overnight I caught a huge skunk mostly white like a bathroom carpet. How to release from a tender trap without become a victim. I came up with the idea of fashioning a 16 ft. Bamboo pole with a metal hook and approaching carefully on my John Deere Tractor to pull trap handle open. No problem. Worked perfectly no damage to either of us. I learned on an African safari that animals don’t see a human on a vehicle rather they see a really big animal that they rather avoid than attack. It happens all the time when I mow our meadows. I can drive to within 30 ft. before deer, skunks, ground hogs run off. Next time bathe Izzy in the garage😂😂

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