Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sticking Up for Skunks, Adirondack Style

A friend of mine in college had a pet skunk named Cauliflower. We heard tales of this unusual household companion, but sadly only got to meet her on the occasion of my friend’s funeral. The year before, while I was interning at a nature center near Syracuse, someone brought in an “abandoned” baby skunk. One of the staff worked with a rehabber and took temporary custody of the little animal until the end of the day. After giving it a meal of Similac, I volunteered to babysit. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a baby skunk nestled in your bosom for the better part of a day (I had to keep it somewhere warm and secure). Needless to say, I developed a fondness for skunks.

In the ensuing years I have discovered that the mere mention of the word skunk causes cries of “pee-eeww” to leap from the mouths of every child, and even some adults, in the vicinity. Noses are pinched tightly shut, even though no actual skunk is nearby. This reaction amuses and baffles me. I guess some lessons are learned early and persist for a lifetime, whether legitimate or not.

Striped skunks (there are, by the way, nine other species of skunks) are known to scientists as Mephitis mephitis. Once grouped together with weasels in the family Mustelidae, skunks now have their own family, Mephitidae, which is shared only with stink badgers, an animal found in the Philippines and Indonesia. It is easy to see why skunks were combined with weasels, for like skunks, weasels have many scent glands and can be quite aromatic. However, only skunks use their scent as a mode of defense.

If one encounters a skunk, and does not threaten it in anyway, the skunk is liable to trundle along its merry way without a second glance. If harassed, it will give plenty of warning to leave it alone. First, it will stomp its front feet. If this doesn’t work, it will make little charges towards it’s harasser with its tail raised over its head. Should the intruder continue to bother it, the skunk will bend its nether regions around to the front, so both its nose and rump are facing the same direction, and let loose a stream of yellowish liquid, a potent musk that can be fired up to twenty feet away. The skunk can manage six to eight squirts before its supply is gone, after which it will require about a week to recharge. The active compound in the spray is butylmercaptan, Mother Nature’s answer to tear gas. While it will burn and sting the eyes, it will not persist (and the recipient will not go blind). Unlike man-made tear gas, the odor can persist for weeks and can be smelled up to a mile away.

In short, it’s best not to bother a skunk.

And why would you want to? After all, skunks provide a valuable service to those who grow crops, and they do it at night when we are asleep. They eat many grubs and grasshoppers and insects of all stripes that are considered pests to the farmer. True, skunks have been known to chicken eggs and sometimes even a hen, but these instances are considered rare. Skunks are true omnivores, consuming berries and bugs, mice and roadkill all with equal relish. That said, invertebrates make up the greatest portion of the skunk’s diet.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, skunks were routinely trapped and bred in captivity for the fur industry. Believe it or not, their pelts were the second most popular fur in the business. But after about 1915 the demand for skunk fur started to decline, and all the skunk breeders had to find a new outlet. Skunks as pets became the next rage. Today pet skunks are hard to come by, mostly because they are illegal in most states due to the fact that skunks are the number two carrier (in the wild) of rabies. Red foxes, incidentally, are listed as number one.

I have been asked several times by local folks why Newcomb has no skunks. My pat answer has been that it’s simply too cold here for them. However, I have learned from long-time residents that Newcomb used to have a good number of these black and white animals. Pursuing this, we discovered that skunks seemed to disappear about the same time that coyotes moved in. Hm…interesting. Part of me wonders, though, if it has more to do with the lack of open space than it does with the presence of coyotes. Skunks are traditionally animals of open spaces, preferring to live near agricultural lands and open woods. Sometimes they inhabit dense woodlands, and have even been found at elevations over 2000 feet, but this is not where they thrive best. Since Newcomb has reverted back to forest over most of its acreage (believe it or not, at one time most of this area was cleared for farms), I suspect this is what has driven the skunks from our fair village.

We could learn a lot from skunks, who are truly pacifists at heart. They waddle their way through life, minding their own business, consuming pestiferous insects to help out (unintentionally) their human neighbors. We could all use a few more neighbors like this.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





3 Responses

  1. Shamim Allen says: