The Skunks of Sharon
Contributed by Kurt Buermann
Mephitis mephitis. The scientific name for the striped skunk means “noxious vapors.” Twice! The armory of the common striped skunk gives it the security and peace of mind to roam freely and unmolested. The wildlife observer may even spot them without leaving the yard. Being an omnivore, the skunk is ideally adapted to a suburban environment. It roams about a mile from the den, seeking insects, fruits and, should fortune smile on it, a neglected bowl of pet food. For several years we have been watching these backyard denizens and have developed an interest in their lives and habits.
Individuals can be distinguished by their markings. The stripe pattern and width varies. In fact, some skunks are almost all black, some almost all white. Some have magnificent bushy tails and some have less flamboyant, utilitarian tails. Since the advent of our skunk friends we have noticed that a former plague of woodchucks has ended. The reason may be that skunks are opportunists and, though capable of digging their own home, prefer to take advantage of preowned dens, thereby displacing the woodchucks who probably dug them. Even so, it is not unknown for skunks to cohabit a tunnel and den system with other creatures — raccoons, possums, foxes, and rabbits. In winter the striped skunk does not truly hibernate. It sleeps a deep sleep with a slowed metabolism. On less cold days it may venture forth to grab a bite. Skunks breed in February and March. Litters of young — kits, as they are called — average 4 to 5, but may be as many as 10. It should be noted that, in the breeding season, male skunks are very touchy and excitable. They may spray humans and large animals such as dogs preemptively. Most other times you actually have to work pretty hard to get skunked. The skunk will exercise restraint, give fair warning by stamping its front legs. But when he bends around into a horseshoe, head and back facing you, it is probably too late for negotiations! Once we managed to apprehend a small skunk that had a sharp plastic ring cutting deeply into its neck. A deft grab and snip with a shears freed it. (It recovered and was spotted a few weeks later.) While there was a strong residual odor, it did not spray. The spray of a skunk has a range up to ten feet with good accuracy up to six feet.
One of our favorite sights is a litter of young skunks passing by. Accompanied by their mother, they all huddle and press tightly together. We are reminded of a fluffy, mobile, black-and-white bath mat as they undulate across the lawn. Our guess is that this strange vision baffles and befuddles other animals. Infrequently a skunk is attacked. Badgers or fishers may pose a threat. They must be VERY hungry! A skunk’s most threatening enemy is the great horned owl, which seems to be immune to their spray. We have observed skunks feeding in the company of possums, raccoons, and even our cat, not only in company but side-by-side!
While skunks are basically meat eaters, related to weasels, they forage for insects such as grasshoppers and crickets. They are also very fond of fruits, especially grapes. If you have ever noticed small holes in your lawn — about 1.5 inches wide and deep — they are most likely made by skunks searching for grubs, which are one of their favorite foods.
Skunks are one of an increasing number of wild species such as falcons, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and possums who have adapted to suburban and urban environments. While this helps ensure their survival, it is also the source of conflict and problems. There are measures we can take to better coexist with backyard wildlife. The case of our little skunk with the sharp plastic ring cutting into its neck shows the need to be careful with trash, keeping good lids on all outdoor containers. Various kinds of packaging are very harmful should a wild animal ingest or get entangled in them. Particularly pernicious are the narrow-at-the-top yogurt containers. It is not uncommon for a small animal such as a skunk to stick its head into one of these and be unable to remove it. Any sort of plastic netting, ribbon, or rings should be disposed of or cut open so that animals cannot become ensnared.
While we do not mind the skunks who have taken up residence beneath our shed, some folks might not be as tolerant. For them, animal-attracting spaces should be well sealed. If an animal is suspected of already living in a space, it’s important not to seal it in. One solution is to fashion a one-way door out of some wire mesh and place it at the suspected entrance. Hinges are not needed; just cut the wire on three sides of a square and bend the surrounding (bottom) wire at the bottom up a bit to allow only a one-way swing. Be careful not to evict any animal who may be a new mother with young. Midsummer is the best time for eviction proceedings.
Relocating animals is illegal in Massachusetts, and for good reason. The animal may return — even from as far as fifteen miles! Relocated animals may suffer or even die, finding too much competition in the new area. The new habitat may be unsuitable or overpopulated. There is a possibility that unattended young may die. Disease may be contracted or spread to uninfected areas. It is always best to contact experts when dealing with wild animals. One is the New England Wildlife Center in Hingham. They will answer wildlife inquiries or refer you to a knowledgeable source. They also run a top-notch wildlife rescue center. Call (781) 749-1248 or visithttp://www.newildlife.com.
Getting back to skunks, here is a final bit of advice: If you happen to own a black-and-white cat, be careful on dark nights and make sure to ascertain the identity of the creature you are picking up. We’ve had a few close calls!