Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In the Air Tonight

Smell that?  In the air?  Eau de skunk.

Lately I've heard a lot of comments about people around here seeing (or smelling) skunks.  I've smelled quite a few.  I've also seen quite a few FORD skunks that were clearly HBC.  What, you don't know those acronyms?  FORD is Found On Roadside Dead and HBC is Hit By Car.  If it seems like there is a sudden invasion of these odoriferous mustileds, you're right!

The Striped Skunk (Mephitis mehitis) is the most common species and the only native skunk species we have here in New England.  These small black and white mammals are so familiar from stories and TV that I bet every one of you could identify them.  But did you know that there is a huge range of color variation?  There is a skunk in our neighborhood that is nearly all white.  Others are nearly all black.  And some appear to be spotted (not to be confused with the Spotted Skunks which are much less common and which don't occur up here).

Skunks are omnivores.  They will eat anything they can get their mouths and paws on.  Compost, bird seed, cat food left out for pet or feral cats, and lots of insects.  And they aren't afraid of anything, either.  My neighbor saw the nearly white skunk in her backyard while her dogs were outside!  The dogs were curious.  The skunk largely ignored them.  Then the dogs needed a bath.

The distinctive odor of skunk can be smelled even when the skunk hasn't sprayed.  They carry that smell with them.  And I can testify from experience that descented "pet" skunks have a faint odor to them as well.

[I do not condone skunks as pets.  If you've ever thought of getting one you should realize that you, your house, your clothes and your food are all going to smell faintly of skunk all the time.  That's enough to make most people think twice.]

Skunks generally do well in urban and suburban habitats.  The high concentration of food around human dwellings make a nice living for a great many wild animals.  Then the skunks just need a place to hole up during the day and during bad weather.  Under the shed will do nicely.

So why are there suddenly so many skunks?  Because this years' babies are heading out on their own.  They've reached nearly adult size and now need to disperse from their mothers territory if they are going to find survive.  Dispersal is a dangerous time.  These young skunks are still learning how to avoid being seen by humans, still learning how to find food (so they're out for more of the day since it takes them longer).  Dispersal also leads to a lot of road crossings.  

The other time of the year that you'll see a lot of skunks is in February or March when it's breeding season and the males are moving around looking for females.  Between now and then the young skunks will have a hard time surviving the harsh winter conditions of New England.  Skunks do not hibernate so I'll be sure to look for their tracks in the snow under the bird feeders during the winter.

 Photo from Wikicommons

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