Monday, October 15, 2012

Adirondack Wildlife: Skunk on the Prowl

The rainy weather that has persisted over the past month has returned the water in our rivers, lakes, and ponds to levels typical for this time of year, rejuvenated the trees and shrubs in our forests and the grass and weeds in our lawns.

It has also restored the moist soil environment necessary for the continued activity of numerous invertebrates, terrestrial amphibians, and other creatures that reside on the ground and in the dirt. Despite several frosts and the record cold this past Friday night that temporarily froze the surface of the soil, many of the organisms that exist in the ground remain active well into the autumn.

The resurgence of bug activity on and just beneath the forest floor provides a source of nourishment to several forms of wildlife; however none ambles about forest edges and sizeable woodland clearings in as relaxed a manner as does the striped skunk. With its exceptionally effective means of defense, the skunk is able to slowly prowl for worms, grubs, crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, salamanders, wood frogs and other bite-sized critters without the threat of being successfully attacked by a larger predatory mammal.

During this past summer, when the ground became especially dry, many soil organisms were forced to burrow down deep in an attempt to locate a more favorable moisture surrounding. This placed these forms of life out of the reach of the skunk which will only uncover an inch or two of dirt to snag an item to eat. While the skunk is capable of excavating a fairly deep burrow into the ground with its long and sharp set of front claws, this member of the weasel family never expends much energy in attempting to unearth a worm, grub, red-backed salamander or other similar soil dweller.

During a summer drought, a few of our more mobile creatures may migrate to shady locations, especially those on the northern slope of a hill or the north side of large boulder where the drying effect of the sun is reduced and a slightly cooler microclimate exists. A depression on the forest floor where a vernal pool formed in spring and left a damp layer of muck beneath the carpet of dead leaves, is another site attractive to moisture sensitive entities during prolonged dry spells. In its attempt to find food, the skunk may concentrate its time visiting these woodland oases in its attempt to unearth enough soil invertebrates and other small animals to satisfy its hunger.

With the return of wet weather, the skunk experiences an expansion of its foraging domain. The higher concentration of soil bugs in open settings, such as forest clearings or the strip of grass and weeds that occurs along the side of roads in the Adirondacks, lures this robust animal into these settings to search for food. The predominately black back and sides of the skunk make it a challenge to see when this nocturnal marauder is crossing a road after sunset and helps increase the likelihood of one becoming roadkill.

The lawns that occur in villages throughout the Park are other sites frequented by the skunk. These open areas are rich in worms and grubs and occasionally offer this meat eater scraps of food from a poorly placed plastic garbage bag, or edible items discarded into an unprotected compost pile.

Because a few individual skunks have been reported to have rabies, it is always wise to remain well away from this animal. A family pet may not share this same level of caution, and approach a skunk too closely, in which case it will suffer from exposure to the foul smelling aerosol mist that this animal is capable of shooting toward an intruder.

As long as frequent rains keep the soil moist, many of the invertebrates that reside on the ground continue to remain active. The ability to find adequate food, despite the cold, is a prime reason why the skunk is so late in retreating to a den and lapsing into a state of winter dormancy at the end of autumn. The lack of large fields and lawns in the Park limits the population of skunks in this region, yet it is not uncommon to see one of these short-legged beasts ambling along the side of a road, or crossing a neighbor’s yard after sunset. These places, with their moist soils, now contain an ample supply of food for this unique member of our wildlife community here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Tomfriedel.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

2 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Tom, there is plenty of skunk activity down here in the finger lakes right now. I have seen and smelled the results the past few days along the roadside. Poor guys.

  2. Mike Rector says:

    Just the other night I was star gazing in my fenced in back yard with my eyepiece to the telescope. Heard a movement in the some of the down leaves, looked over and there was a skunk 3 feet away. I got inside before it even noticed me.

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