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Tue, 12 Apr 2016 06:39:11 EDT
Smelly Harbinger of Spring
By Tom Lounsbury
Certain birds such as robins, grackles and red-wing blackbirds get a lot of credit for being harbingers of spring, which in fact they are, but little credit is given to animals such as the skunk. Even as smelly as it is, I do consider the skunk as being a harbinger of spring because Iím pretty sure spring has pretty well sprung when I start noticing skunks fully out and about. Of course winters like the one we just had can be a bit confusing to skunks due to mild stretches, because I can remember a few of them being out and about just before Christmas, but wintry cold fronts convinced them matters werenít over yet.
Skunks are not true hibernators but do den up and remain dormant for a lengthy spell during winter. This is a survival tactic that is a plus when typical food sources become real lean and near nonexistent during cold weather. Females often den together for mutual warmth while males usually den solo. Skunks often use the burrows of other animals, but have the capacity with their front claws to dig and make their own. They are also opportunistic and often use crawl spaces under buildings and I know for a fact my haymow is a favorite wintering spot for my local skunk population. Fortunately this seems to be in the back part of the haymow and they have thus far vacated it by the time I get to that part for feeding to my horses when springtime rolls around.
The mating period for skunks typically occurs in early spring, usually when you first realize they are out and about, and the males will mate with as many females as it can locate (skunks have a home range of about a square mile that overlaps with other skunks). The female will give birth to about 4 to 7 kits in May and they are born eyes closed and with fur having the usual black and white markings. The black and white markings are a distinct survival coloration that alerts predators to keep away, or it will get real ugly in the olfactory matter of things.
Actually the skunkís only true predator is the great-horned owl which obviously canít smell. Skunks and great-horned owls are both nocturnal feeders and I can always tell when a skunk gets pounced on and snatched up by a hungry owl. There will be a sudden strong skunk odor in the air, and then it will quickly begin to fade away, because the owl has flown off with the skunk in its talons.
The skunk has two anal glands located below its tail which create an oily, sulfur mixture called mercaptan that has an extremely offensive odor with clinging and very long lasting abilities. Skunks are unwilling to use this too freely because they are only carrying enough ďammoĒ for about a half dozen shots and it requires ten days to replenish it. Muscles are contracted to accurately cast the liquid out to a range of 10 feet and I can tell you for a fact that the odor, when received firsthand, is quite overwhelming, way more so than what is normally smelled a bit further away.
Skunks will usually stamp their feet and even hiss a bit when alarmed, and then they turn their rear toward the threat and trust me when I say they are not bluffing a bit. Running away doesnít often seem to be an option for them, although Iíve been able to slowly and patiently haze them out of areas like my garage (when the door has been left open at night) and off my deck. They left (scent free) because I allowed an obvious out for them and didnít press matters. Iíve also bumped into skunks while Iím either leaving or entering a bowhunting spot in the darkness, and by freezing and holding tight until the skunk decides to move on, everything thus far has been copacetic.
Iíve heard skunk spray being described as a ďmistĒ, but what I have witnessed is several very visible greenish/yellow liquid globules, some small, some a bit larger, being cast in a rather tight ďshotgunĒ pattern. Iíve had my share of skunk encounters and have actually been able to dodge the fast flying globules, except for one time. This happened when I was a farm kid with a trapline and ended up with a skunk in a leg-hold trap. I was actually trying to use a long branch to press down on a lever of the trap in order to release the skunk so we could go our separate ways.
However, the branch turned out to be not long enough and those previously described greenish/yellow globules hit me dead center in my brand new rubber knee-high boots (that I had just paid hard earned and long saved allowance money for). Needless to say folks, this is a moment that literally takes your breath away and actually makes breathing afterwards a bit of a strain just due to the extremely overwhelming odor. My boots, despite a thorough scrubbing, ended up being hung in an isolated area of the barn to air out, and by the time I could even try putting them on again, I had outgrown them. Yep, skunk smell sure has a very lasting effect.
Once a critter gets sprayed by a skunk, it usually is memorable enough that they never try it again. Just about every dog Iíve owned has been ďskunkedĒ at least once and rarely twice. The only exception Iíve ever had is my Labrador retriever Ebony, who absolutely hates skunks and she will kill them on sight without any cares (or obvious regrets) about being sprayed. Thus far this has happened several times and I doubt she will ever back off, so it is what it is.
There are a lot of recipes and formulas out there for de-skunking a dog, and believe me Iíve tried a lot of them. In Ebonyís case Iím fortunate in that I have a farm pond in my backyard and Ebony canít ever resist fetching a thrown stick. About the time my throwing arm starts getting worn out and Ebony as well, she starts smelling somewhat more tolerable to be around.
Skunks are very omnivorous and eat small animals, eggs, reptiles, grubs, earthworms, berries, fruit, carrion, garbage and you name it. Mowed lawns at night are a favorite place for them to seek earthworms, moles and grubs. This is where they leave telltale small holes in the ground, sometimes plenty of them, as well as they can very skillfully roll strips of the lawn up into neat bundles, often causing the property owner to ponder about who the culprit might be due to the amount of damage to their yard.
Although skunks possess highly tuned senses of smell and hearing, they have very poor eyesight and I believe this is a reason they are frequently run over by motor vehicles. That and the fact they seem to (almost arrogantly) believe all they have to do is lift their tail and point there rear end at a threat and it will usually back off, but fast moving vehicles at night canít always be that selective about slow moving or stationary skunks suddenly appearing in the headlights.
Despite a recent snowstorm and spring being a bit reluctant about making a serious commitment as yet, I smelled a strong skunk odor hanging in the air just the other night, and then it quickly dissipated. Obviously a great-horned owl got lucky on its hunt and flew off with a meal in its talons.
It also means skunks, being key harbingers of spring in my opinion, are beginning to finally get out and about, and Iím ready for springtime.