For the past two weeks I have been experiencing a miasma of stench in the early morning darkness. I take my dogs out around 5:30 a.m. and my first breath of outside air has been laden with the hint of skunk.
I live in the country and our porch light has limited illumination so now I am arming myself with a powerful flashlight for my daily skunk fighting weapon of choice. In the 23 years we have lived in this house, we have had the misfortune of a direct skunk encounter four different times.
Our dog, Penny, who was very smart but very assertive, didn’t learn from her first spraying. One of our cats got sprayed too.
Late February begins what I call the “striped skunk season.” This is an annual occurrence and lasts for several weeks — it is skunk mating season. Skunks mate in Ohio in late February through March producing litters of two to 10 young.
The young are blind and furless but by the second week they are furred and by the third week their eyes have opened. At around six weeks of age they will begin venturing out with their mother to find food. The young stay with their mother until the next breeding season. According to the University of Wisconsin, a skunk develops it ability to spray at around eight days of age. Yikes!
Also referred to as polecats, skunks are nocturnal, meaning they are usually out and about at night. They are omnivorous which means they eat both meat and vegetative matter.
Their diets can consist of insects, small mammals, fish, crustaceans, nuts, grasses, leaves, fruits, and grains. Skunks are actually very beneficial because they consume pests such as insects and grubs that affect lawns, gardens, and agricultural crops. They also keep the rodent population down as well as clean up the environment by consuming carrion.
Skunks are generally the size of the average house cat, weighing between two and a half to 10 pounds. They have a small head, stubby legs, and beautiful glossy fur. Most are black with two white lines that form a V shape from shoulders to tail; however, skunks can be brown, white, cream, black, and occasionally albino. Males and females look very much alike with males being slightly larger in size. Skunks have slightly webbed feet with the front toes having long, curved claws designed for digging for food and dens for their homes.
Skunks are very adaptable and are found in all Ohio counties with their range running from Canada to Mexico. When threatened a skunk’s first move is to run away but it can be difficult to get too far on those short legs. If fleeing doesn’t work, it then resorts to arching its back, raising its tail, and turning its back on the predator.
It may stomp its feet and do a handstand. When all else fails, the skunk will spray an odiferous fluid from vents under its tail at the predator, giving the pokey skunk time to escape. A skunk can spray up to 15 feet. The spray is oily and difficult to remove and can cause temporary blindness, headaches, uncontrollable tearing, nasal drainage, salivation, and even nausea and vomiting if ingested.
While striped skunks prefer open areas with a mix of habitats like woods, grasslands, and agricultural clearings, they are quite common in urban and suburban areas. They are docile creatures and can be a food source for great horned owls, bald eagles, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes.
Because of the skunks’ ambling gait, they often fall victim to road kill because they can’t get out of the way of a fast-moving car. The average life span of a skunk is only about a year. I am giving away my age by admitting that I remember the bizarre song “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” by Loudon Wainwright III.
If you should encounter a skunk, your best course of action is to quietly get away. If a skunk should get into your house or garage, open a door and wait (very patiently) until it exits. If one should make its home under a shed or porch, wait until it leaves and seal up the entrance. Never chase or scare a skunk! The scientific name for the striped skunk is Mephitis mephitis which comes from the Latin word mephit, meaning “bad odor.”
Trust me when I tell you there is no quick relief from the spray of a skunk. If you venture out after dark, you might get a surprise so go prepared by scouting the path ahead with a strong flashlight. As the song says, you don’t want to meet up with the skunk who is “stinkin’ to high heaven.”
Some things that don’t stink are featured on the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District’s website at www.delawareswcd.org:
• 2017 Agronomy Workshop & Expo on February 23 at All Occasions Catering
• Composter Workshop on March 28 at the Powell Municipal Building
• Species details and order form for the 2017 Tree and Shrub Packet Sale
• Dick O’Keefe Memorial Scholarship for high school seniors
You can also call the office at 740-368-1921 for details.
Bonnie Dailey is Deputy Administrator of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District.