Striped Skunk (mephitis mephitis)
The Striped Skunk, one of six species of skunk that roam North America, is so secure in its noxious defense, it roams almost anywhere without much caution. I was on our deck one warm day at end of summer and saw a good sized one, digging around at the base of the support posts, below one of our bird feeders. At first I was a bit alarmed, worried that it might be ill, but its behavior seemed calm, going about its business, digging into the earth, sniffing about as it went.
I would see it come on other days, and then it seemed to have a friend, then two, then ….. four???!!! Oh no!!! I thought it must be a female, setting up house, attracting males, too, and was it going to live in our shed??? There was an abundance of feces in there. Oh no!!! So, panicking, I called in a live trapper, and within three days, he had caught and taken away six of them. But on that last day I searched the internet for information, my heart breaking, and my nights tearful, regretful, and sleepless.
When I learned what I could from a wonderful woman’s webpage http://www.wildskunkrescue.com
I stopped the trapping. I cannot go back and undo the damage I have done, the innocent lives, sadly snuffed out. But I committed myself then and there to help educate my friends and neighbors about these little creatures.
That lack of caution I introduced this article with….. that may be why skunks are one of the animals most frequently killed on highways. But they are intelligent and learn quickly too. Omnivorous, their diet is composed mainly of insects and their larvae (which is probably why that skunk was digging in our sunflower shell enriched soil), as well as fruits, veggies, and wild berries. In spring they also eat mice, fledglings, and eggs. They help clean up carrion, and their dens are on the ground, often under buildings or in abandoned burrows of other mammals.
In the fall they fatten up, and with as many as ten together in a den, hunker down in the coldest parts of winter, not hibernating but living off their fat. At the end of February, the males wander in search of females, and a couple months after mating, the young are born, usually four or five to a litter.
At five weeks old the kits are weaned and follow their mom as she teaches them to hunt, foraging within 1000 yards of their den, usually at night. Night is good to avoid bald eagles and red-tailed hawks. As summer ends, the leaves fall and the skunks have less to hide them from the great horned owls that prey upon them, so the mother might leave the young in the den, and go foraging by day when it is more safe for the young to stay hidden. And this is probably why that first skunk showed up. Her ‘friends’ were very likely her young, and she was bringing them along when she felt it was more safe. When I learned this, I felt like a monster.
I also learned that skunks would rather escape than spray, and that they will give a couple warnings before they spray…. stamping the feet and doing handstands. If you must move around them, staying calm and moving slowly is the best thing you can do.
One of my immediate motivations to call the trapper was the notion of skunks carrying rabies. A skunk that is ill will have marked behavior that is lethargic and/or wobbly, not at all like my visitors. Yes they can carry disease (so can cats and dogs), but when healthy, as my little neighbors were, they help control insects and rodents. They have evolved with the forest that I love.
So I will be happy if I see that beautiful black and white plume of a tail gracing our yard again. I ask forgiveness for my ignorance. I am trying to learn from these gentle teachers.