Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Springtime Skunks: Amorous And Odoriferous

skunk the outsiderDriving home from work the other day, I saw my first road-killed skunk of the year. And if this year is anything like the last few, it won’t be the last one I see this season. While April showers do indeed bring May flowers, it’s also true that warm weather in March and early April is a certain sign that skunks will turn up dead in the road in great numbers.

I’ve been paying close attention to roadkill lately, and while most of the abundant species like raccoons and squirrels seem to be struck and killed by vehicles regularly throughout the year, with maybe an uptick in fall when the young of the year disperse and food sources get concentrated, that doesn’t seem to be the case with skunks to the same degree. These attractive-but-unpopular animals seem to meet their end on roadways most often in early spring.

March is the breeding season for the region’s only native skunk, the striped skunk, whose black-and-white fur and pungent aroma make it unmistakable. The species lives in a variety of habitats, including mixed woods and brush, and it often forages in fields, lawns, and other clearings. An omnivore, it feeds on a wide variety of insects, grubs, berries, and carrion.

Although skunks will sometimes den up together in winter, for the most part they live solitary lives. During the breeding season, they may travel great distances to seek each other out. This often requires road crossings. Because skunks are largely nocturnal and most wildlife is struck by vehicles at night, they are a common casualty. Young skunks seeking to breed for the first time may be especially vulnerable.

Despite their stink, skunks have a closer relationship with humans than most people realize. In earlier times, skunk pelts were a valuable commodity in the fur trade. During the Depression, when they were made into hats, gloves, and coats, one skunk pelt could sell for $4 or $5. Their value hasn’t changed much since then, making the animals hardly worthwhile for trappers to bother with. There is a niche market today for their scent glands, which are used in commercial animal lures. One state biologist equated skunk essence to “a long distance call with universal appeal” among many animals, especially fishers.

The decline of skunk trapping may mean there are more skunks today than existed a century ago, but few states conduct skunk population surveys so it’s hard to verify this. One thing is certain, however – skunks undoubtedly benefited from human development of the landscape. Based on roadkill surveys and nuisance complaints, there are believed to be many more skunks per square mile of urban and suburban area than in more natural settings. But their proximity also means the animals are more apt to being struck by vehicles.

Which brings us to one more reason why skunks become roadkill so often in spring – their brazen nature. Skunks just aren’t as cautious as many other wildlife species, especially when love is in the air. Because of their ability to spray a noxious liquid from their scent glands, there are few predators that will attack them. Coyotes may occasionally prey upon them, and great horned owls are expert skunk killers, but the risk of a burning nose and eyes, even temporary blindness, keeps most other predators at bay.

And who would blame them for staying away? The scent was described by author and wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton as a combination of perfume musk, essence of garlic, burning sulfur, and sewer gas “magnified a thousand times.”

Because striped skunks have little fear of predators, they apparently have little fear of almost anything that moves, including humans. They’re comfortable living around homes and businesses, often building dens beneath abandoned buildings, under residential porches and decks, and beneath woodpiles and stone walls. I like to wander my property at night, listening for owls and staring at the stars, and it’s not uncommon for a skunk to waddle past me during the breeding season. One nearly even stepped on my foot and kept going as if I wasn’t there.

In a similar way, when a car approaches a skunk, the animal brazenly stands its ground. Sadly, it’s a confrontation that the skunk almost never wins.

Todd McLeish is an author and natural history writer. His most recent book is entitled, Norwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, northernwoodlands.org, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: wellborn@nhcf.org


Guest Contributor

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.




2 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Another part of their casual attitude to moving objects is that they don’t seem to have developed good vision like in most prey species, since they don’t really need it. They depend on their noses for their sustenance.

  2. Charlie S says:

    “warm weather in March and early April is a certain sign that skunks will turn up dead in the road in great numbers.”

    I’ve been seeing them dead on roads in the Capital region all winter Todd. Rabbits too,coons,possums. I see as many dead skunks on the roads as any other animal it seems,if not more. Spring is as much a pleasant time of year as it is a sad time of the year. This is the time the animals come out and by the millions they die thanks to Henry Ford’s wonderful patent the automobile. I’m getting better at accepting all of the death I see on the roads thanks in part to a philosophy that is building within as I age,but still… it bothers me.It reminds me of how dysfunctional this society really is.

    Speaking of dead animals on the roads….between Tibbits and Dyke Avenues in Cohoes on 787 there is a large dead beaver that has been in the median for at least a week.It came out of a small pond that is fed by the Mohawk River on the east end of this drag-strip. There is nowhere to go once on the other side of 787 it is fenced off and if it were to get past the fence there is no water,just another industrial and residential wasteland. Poor beaver! It just did not know. In some places they put tunnels under roads for animals to go through instead of them going over them and getting run over. In this case a tunnel would have been fruitless as there is nothing on the other side but homes and factories.

    Where this beaver lies dead in the road is the same location where five beavers were run over just a few years ago. One by one they were run over because that’s what people like to do. It’s easier than having to stop and have interrupted their routines. This beaver in the median as I write,as the others,come from a beaver hut that is just off to the side of this small pond. These animals must have some kind of radar that leads them to this hut which I was told is at least 30 years old.

    If only they were a bit smarter these beautiful animals! If only they had but an inkling of how dangerous man and his machines really are!

    Peter Lonardelli runs an animal rescue place out of Troy. I told him about these dead beavers on 787 at the time of the event and what did he do? He went over there with a shovel and picked each one of them beavers up and gave them all a decent burial. Then he went to City Hall to see if some kind of barrier could be put up to keep the animals from going in the road but nothing came of it and that was that nothing has changed,beavers and other animals are still getting run over on that road. There’s only so much we can do but knowing there are others that care…there’s a sorta comfort in this.

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