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The skunk rightfully commands respect in the rural landscape. Photo by ODNR Division of Wildlife.

The sauntering skunk

Exuding a potent musk that stifles the breath and curls the nose, the skunk does not rank high on most people’s favorite animal list. This animal lacks fanfare. Beyond the lovable “Flower” in Disney’s Bambi, or the laughable Looney Toons caricature Pepè le Pew, the skunk rarely graces the silver screen. Nobody wants to be “skunked” when fishing or playing a game. To be called a skunk implies that one possesses a sort of maleficent odor lingering about his essence.

Further, as author Alyce Miller rightly points out, the skunk is a very unglamorous animal. Skunk meat is not a feature of fine restaurants, the animals are rarely pursued by sportsmen and they are not beloved literary symbols or pleasant companion animals.

Animals and humans alike avoid this smelly resident of farms and woodlots with its characteristic black and white striped body and wedge-shaped head — and for good reason. Anyone who has been a subject of defensive spray of the skunk knows this well. The skunk’s spray is stored in two walnut-sized glands inside the anus and when it feels threatened, the skunk is capable of squirting this oily, yellowish liquid from vents under its tail up to 15 feet. Additionally, possessing a “six-shooter,” the skunk can fire this liquid off up to six times before reloading.

Prior to dousing its victim with its foul smelling mist, the skunk does give off a warning.

If a skunk:

1. Bushes out its fur

2. Stamps the ground with its forefeet

3. Growls

4. Turns its head and spits

5. Then, turns its body into a U-Shape or does a handstand on its front legs…RUN!! The polecat is set to go off!

If one fails to heed the skunk’s warning the skunk will leave a lasting impression. The victim will be left with a choking sulfuric odor that tears the eyes and lasts for days, with little hope of quick relief — scent on the skin can linger for a month or more.

Though it is only the size of a house cat — eight to 19 inches long with a five- to 15-inch striped tail — the skunk is a formidable force to be reckoned with in the countryside, and it seems to know it. American wildlife expert Marty Stouffer playfully observes that the skunk is a “four-legged fumigator which has mastered chemical warfare…so sure in its noxious defense, it will wander almost anywhere.”

The skunk has reason to walk with some swagger. It has few enemies. Most predators will avoid tangling with a skunk unless driven to desperate measures due to extreme hunger. And when humans encounter skunks, they briskly walk the other way. But every critter must have its Kryptonite, and the skunk’s primary adversary is the Great Horned Owl, that, conveniently, has virtually no sense of smell.

The skunk’s spray serves as a deterrent from open conflict with other animals but the skunk has other defenses as well. Territorial battles between male skunks reveal them to be vicious, tenacious fighters capable of holding their own in claw-and-fang primal contests. Accustomed to their own spray, skunks do not use “chemical warfare” when fighting amongst themselves, but instead duke it out in fierce, hour-long combats that can result in death. A skunk fight is a bloody, rascally, and violent affair.

As this description of their primitive ferocity suggests, perhaps there are some aspects of the skunk worthy of admiration. Many a naturalist and outdoorsman have come to respect this often overlooked creature, despite its stinky reputation.

In her book, “Skunk,” Alyce Miller reconsiders the smell of the skunk and stereotypical attitudes toward the skunk.

“Skunks may win the prize for the most misunderstood mammals of North America…skunk has an understated presence in the New World,” Miller writes, adding that they have “a rich, earthy scent that brings us closer to the wild…Mostly solitary and peace-loving, skunks readily adapt from forest and meadow to urban and suburban landscapes. Skunks conduct themselves with a certain grace, aplomb, and rectitude.”

Early twentieth century naturalist and author Ernest Thompson Seton even viewed the skunk in patriotic terms, as illustrated in his essay, “The Well-Meaning Skunk.”

“I have a profound admiration for the Skunk. Indeed, I once maintained that this animal was the proper emblem of America. It is, first of all peculiar to this continent. It has stars on its head and stripes on its body. It is an ideal citizen; minds its own business, harms no one, as long as it is left alone; but it will face any one or any number when aroused,” Seton said.

According to Marty Stouffer, skunks are “not fully understood and have received a distorted and often times negative image. Each species plays a critical role in the grand scheme of things. The skunk’s benefits outweigh its shortcomings. One of its redeeming qualities is as an asset in controlling rodent populations.”

The skunk certainly does perform an important role in agricultural ecosystems. Capable of eating two times their body weight several times a week, skunks eat huge quantities of agricultural pests. Though they are omnivores, 70% of their diet consists of animal matter during the spring and summer when insects and rodents are plentiful. Chiefly nocturnal, the skunk’s black and white striping makes perfect camouflage for hunting and scavenging at night. Using cat-like hunting strategies to catch their prey, skunks capture and consume a vast variety of creatures: grasshoppers, bees, wasps, beetles, crickets, worms, snails, toads, frogs, crayfish, salamanders, minnows, mice, voles, rats, bats, moles, shrews, ground squirrels, and chipmunks.

In Ohio, chances are, there is a skunk making its home nearby. A habitat generalist that is naturally occurring in all 88 counties, the skunk is highly adaptive. They prefer open fields and forest edges to thicker woods and can just adjust to the realities of suburbia. Skunks like to den in wood and rock piles, under abandoned farmsteads and buildings, and the old ground burrows of other animals.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Skunks  seldom cause damage to property other than raiding garbage or eating pet food. They sometimes reside under buildings or in rock and wood piles.

ODNR recommends discouraging unwanted visits by taking appropriate precautions:

  • In confined spaces skunks may be driven away by placing an ammonia-soaked towel in the den.
  • Install a one-way door until sure the animal(s) have left, then permanently seal the entrance.
  • An animal that becomes trapped in a window well will climb out if you place a rough board in the well that extends to the top.
  • If an animal gets into the house, open a door and calmly allow it to exit.

• Never chase or excite a skunk.

Those who catch a glimpse — or a whiff — of a skunk, should not take it for granted. Firstly, they might get sprayed! Secondly, a study of “them stinkin’ polecats” reveals them to be much more than mere stink-spraying nuisances. A proud creature that saunters the hillside with an air of confidence, the skunk projects to the world, “Don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you.” The skunk is a wild and free individualist whose musky, feisty aura contributes to its self preservation, meriting a begrudging respect from all with which it comes in contact.


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