Outside Story: Springtime Skunks: Amorous, Odoriferous and in the Road
Driving home from work the other day, I saw my first road-killed skunk of the year. And if this year is anything like the last few, it won't be the last one I see this season. While April showers do indeed bring May flowers, it's also true that warm weather in March and early April is a certain sign that skunks will turn up dead in the road in great numbers.
I've been paying close attention to roadkill lately, and while most of the abundant species like raccoons and squirrels seem to be struck and killed by vehicles regularly throughout the year, with maybe an uptick in fall when the young of the year disperse and food sources get concentrated, that doesn't seem to be the case with skunks to the same degree. These attractive-but-unpopular animals seem to meet their end on roadways most often in early spring.
March is the breeding season for the region's only native skunk, the striped skunk, whose black-and-white fur and pungent aroma make it unmistakable. The species lives in a variety of habitats, including mixed woods and brush, and it often forages in fields, lawns, and other clearings. An omnivore, it feeds on a wide variety of insects, grubs, berries, and carrion.
Although skunks will sometimes den up together in winter, for the most part they live solitary lives. During the breeding season, they may travel great distances to seek each other out. This often requires road crossings. Because skunks are largely nocturnal and most wildlife is struck by vehicles at night, they are a common casualty. Young skunks seeking to breed for the first time may be especially vulnerable.
Despite their stink, skunks have a closer relationship with humans than most people realize.
In earlier times, skunk pelts were a valuable commodity in the fur trade. During the Depression, when they were made into hats, gloves, and coats, one skunk pelt could sell for $4 or $5. Their value hasn't changed much since then, making the animals hardly worthwhile for trappers to bother with. There is a niche market today for their scent glands, which are used in commercial animal lures. One state biologist equated skunk essence to "a long distance call with universal appeal" among many animals, especially fishers.
The decline of skunk trapping may mean there are more skunks today than existed a century ago, but few states conduct skunk population surveys so it's hard to verify this. One thing is certain, however – skunks undoubtedly benefited from human development of the landscape. Based on roadkill surveys and nuisance complaints, there are believed to be many more skunks per square mile of urban and suburban area than in more natural settings. But their proximity also means the animals are more apt to being struck by vehicles.
Which brings us to one more reason why skunks become roadkill so often in spring – their brazen nature. Skunks just aren't as cautious as many other wildlife species, especially when love is in the air. Because of their ability to spray a noxious liquid from their scent glands, there are few predators that will attack them. Coyotes may occasionally prey upon them, and great horned owls are expert skunk killers, but the risk of a burning nose and eyes, even temporary blindness, keeps most other predators at bay.
And who would blame them for staying away? The scent was described by author and wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton as a combination of perfume musk, essence of garlic, burning sulfur, and sewer gas "magnified a thousand times."
Because striped skunks have little fear of predators, they apparently have little fear of almost anything that moves, including humans. They're comfortable living around homes and businesses, often building dens beneath abandoned buildings, under residential porches and decks, and beneath woodpiles and stone walls. I like to wander my property at night, listening for owls and staring at the stars, and it's not uncommon for a skunk to waddle past me during the breeding season. One nearly even stepped on my foot and kept going as if I wasn't there.
In a similar way, when a car approaches a skunk, the animal brazenly stands its ground. Sadly, it's a confrontation that the skunk almost never wins.
Todd McLeish is an author and natural history writer. His most recent book is entitled, Norwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, northernwoodlands.org, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org
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