Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Skunks

I caught a whiff of skunk yesterday morning when I let Bella out the front door for her morning rituals. I glanced quickly about to be sure no black and white tails were about, although now that we've sprung forward it is dark again in the morning so it was hard to see. Bella is the curious sort, so if the skunk was about she would have greeted it and I would be searching for tomato juice to clean her coat.

Perhaps the skunk knew that 6 inches of heavy snow was on its way and was only out on a quick hunting foray. Or maybe it was on a mile or more trek in search of a mate. Breeding season is well underway. Or maybe with dawn approaching it went back into a burrow.

Skunks, ours being the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), get a bad rap. Some deserved I suppose. Mephitis means a stench or foul smell. Apparently the person who named the skunk thought it was so foul that it just repeated mephitis for the species name. Yet the skunk's odor is what makes this member of the weasel family so unique and one of the most recognized animals, probably as well known as Coke or Nike.

You have to admire the skunk, with its glossy black coat and dramatic white strips down the back and bushy tail that alert predators that it can deliver some nasty spray if it doesn't back off and its ability to live about anywhere and eat most anything. The skunk is sure of itself, waddling about flat-footed like a bear, on its short stubby legs, minding its own business in search of grubs, insects, bees, grasshoppers, berries, catfood, garbage, roadkill. The latter gets it into trouble; unfortunately spraying a car doesn't work the same as spraying a coyote or other curiuous creature. When it gets too cold the skunk finds a vacant burrow and sleeps until temperatures improve, maybe after a few months.

The striped skunk has adapted well to humans, thriving in suburbia. They like the culverts, wood piles, buildings, and other hideouts that we provide and they forage among the garbage bags, compost piles, and pet food left outside at night. Skunks have long, thin front nails, used for digging up insects and bees, leaving behind shallow, cone-shaped holes, often in lawns. Some folks go about spraying pesticides to rid their lawn of the grubs so the skunks don't come. I prefer to let the skunks eat the grubs. A skunk's first instinct is to shuffle away when disturbed so there is little danger of getting sprayed if one is alert to these beautiful animals.

A few winters ago I took this photo of skunk tracks in our driveway.

Later that spring we emailed a few photos of completed woodworking projects to our woodworking instructor (Al lives nearby on Bald Hill Road and runs the Homestead Woodworking School; his family has owned their land since the King's grant). Al's email reply said, "Srini, you should buy Ellen some shoes." Now what the heck was he talking about. I looked up the email that we sent and sure enough we had inadvertently attached the skunk track photo with the photos of a cherry sideboard. For more of Al's Yankee humor consider taking a woodworking class from him, he's fabulous. But be aware of the photos that you send him!

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