Weekend wildlife: 11 cool facts about skunks
'Striped skunks don't deserve a bad rap'
On a dark night last weekend, a large skunk almost met its end under the wheels of my compact car. (I'll call it "him" for the purposes of this article).
On a quiet suburban road, he ambled out slowly in front of the car in just enough time for me to stop. He glanced at the car for a moment, then unfazed, ambled slowly to the other side of the road. Clearly it was his road, not mine.
Really, he was cute. His little black eyes shone down his little pointy nose in a way that, if not friendly, was certainly non-threatening.
"Striped skunks don't deserve a bad rap," asserts wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft from his home in Nova Scotia. "Odoriferous maybe, but they release that nauseating spray with reluctance."
Eastern striped skunks are so ubiquitous on P.E.I., you'll likely meet one sooner or later — and you might as well know a bit about them first. Here, with Bancroft's help, are some cool facts about skunks.
1. They're from away
Skunks were introduced at the turn of the last century, when there was a huge boom in fur farming.
"Fur farmers imported many of them to their ranches, and when the price of furs fell, the skunks were turned loose or escaped. Since then, they have increased to pest proportions," the province writes on its website.
From 1932 to 1964 there was even a bounty paid for skunks in a futile effort to decrease their population — which only increased.
Their fur, notes Bancroft, is "gorgeous."
2. Size matters
Roughly the size of a domestic cat, skunks weigh between three and 15 pounds — and male skunks are about 15 per cent larger than females. They get fatter in the fall as they prepare to hibernate, emerging in February or March.
3. Menu: meat and veggies
Skunks are omnivores, meaning they'll eat anything — plants, insects and animals. They enjoy grasshoppers, beetles and crickets in spring and summer, and can be helpful to farmers by eating worms, grubs, rats and mice.
They'll also also take down moles, shrews, squirrels, chipmunks, frogs, young rabbits and occasionally, barnyard chickens. They'll even even swallow bees and wasps after stomping them, said Bancroft, adding "pet skunks find the smell of household garbage irresistible."
4. Don't bother me…
Owls are about the only natural predators of skunks, since they have a very poor sense of smell, the province said. Coyotes will eat them too. Automobiles are probably the major cause of skunk mortality.
5. …or else
"Eminent danger prompts warnings like the arching of backs, raising of tails, and foot stamping on the ground," before a skunk will spray a perceived threat points out Bancroft, noting this posturing rarely works with approaching vehicles.
6. Family life
After breeding in March, a female skunk has usually has five or six — but sometimes as many as 12 — kits or cubs in April or May, and can be seen foraging with her young about a month later.
The young skunks stay with their mother throughout the summer and even hibernate with her the winter following their birth.
Skunks dig holes in lawns to unearth June bugs and other larvae. While many people find this annoyingly destructive, Bancroft waxes positively poetic.
"Occasionally a gorgeous, shiny, black and white, long-furred tail drifts by the window. Mama is followed by a chorus line of elegant but smaller tails. It's lawn patrol; the local pest control officer is training her youngsters," said Bancroft.
Some people buy skunks as pets after their scent glands are removed, calling them very intelligent and companionable.
8. Slow movers
Skunks move with a deliberate amble, a slow trot, or if necessary can muster a gallant gallop at a top speed of about 14 km/hr, said Bancroft.
9. They like the night life
Skunks usually hunt for food in the late afternoon to night. They locate food in the dark by smell and hearing, and tend to wander over an area of about 4 hecatres.
10. Skunk for supper?
"Believe it or not, skunks are good to eat," declares Bancroft. "First Nations folks left skunk bones in the kitchen middens that archaeologists excavate and investigate."
11. DIY trapping
"If an individual skunk causes serious problems around a dwelling, it can be easily live-trapped," claims Bancroft. You'll need to buy or borrow a live trap.
"Approach slowly and gently cover wire mesh traps with an old blanket or burlap. They can be transported in this manner without discharging that horrid smell. Release skunks at least four kilometres away so that they won't return." Or, you could call a pro to deal with it.
To get rid of skunk odour, a solution of one quart of three per cent hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of dish detergent is more effective and much cheaper than a traditional tomato juice bath, the province's website suggests.
While Bancroft enjoys the skunk's "positive, audacious attitude," nobody wants to meet one up close.
The province outlines ways to prevent skunks from making themselves at home on your property, and more here.
Here kitty, kitty
Here's a funny story shared via Facebook by Barbara Nymark, who lives in Victoria-by-the-Sea, P.E.I.:
"City Cinema many years ago — when the 'air conditioning' was an open back door covered only by a black curtain. Just as the lights started to dim, a skunk waddled in. A group of German tourists in the front row thought it was a cat, and started to call it to come in. The entire room chorused a very quiet 'no!' The skunk sniffed the air, then ambled back out. Better than cartoons!"