March 6, 2011
Four a.m. Tuesday I woke up to a acrid, burnt smell in our bedroom. My immediate response was “which one of us did that?” followed quickly by a the realization that the odor wasn’t due to either Bill or me, but a skunk.
Because it was March, and skunk stink is more associated, at least for me, with summer, not winter, I got out of bed, went into the bathroom, and cracked the window to make sure I was right. I got a nose full of Pepé Le Pew.
That afternoon I asked Tina, who knows about wildlife having grown up in 4-H, “What’s with the skunks?”
“Mating season,” T said.
If you readers in other parts of the country — like California, Texas, Nevada, Florida or Massachusetts — are thinking that this column has nothing to do with you, wise up. Striped skunks are everywhere. I mean every where, from the southern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada south thoughout the U.S. and into Mexico, in woods, grasslands, deserts, farmlands, and suburbs.
According to Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue founder, Doris Duncan, “Skunks are mating and breeding all over the county right now. That’s why there is so much skunk scent in the air.”
For adult skunks, mating season started in late February; yearling females (born in the preceding year) mate in late March. Copulating skunks is one of the indicators that spring is on its way, and more valid than Punxsutawney Phil.
During the once-a-year courting season, males are on the roam, often leaving their own territories in search of a mate. Home range is is l/2 to 2 miles in diameter, but a salacious male skunk might travel 4 to 5 miles in one night while on the prowl. (Skunks have a top speed of around 10 miles an hour, though they prefer to a more sedate rate of 1 mph.)
Normally gentle and non-aggressive, male skunks are very excitable during courting and will spray large animals and people at random. If the female isn’t in the mood, “then it's pee-ew, hold your nose as the female skunk sprays rejection all over her suitor and replaces amour with odor,” according to the Humane Society. Although that won’t slow the guy down; males can mate with several females during the season. Between territorial spraying, males fighting, and females spraying males they don't find suitable, a lot of skunk perfume is airborne in early spring.
Other times of the year, these members of the weasel family do not use their spray on each other, even in the fiercest fight. They’re even going to give you a few back off signs before they squirt you with their thick, oily, liquid musk: They’ll rapidly stamp their front feet, click their teeth, growl, or hiss. They may do handstands. The most common signal is the skunk turning its tuckus your way and raising its tail. Every hair will be on its body will be erect. If you’re still trying to get the prefect photograph, or coax it with a delicate grub, hustle your fanny outta there. You’re about to get a dose of jet fuel.
Secreted by two internal glands connected to two nipples at the base of the tail, musk is a sulfur compound, which can cause irritation and temporary blindness, allowing the skunk time to escape. More controllable than a Patriot missile, these scent glands can be aimed to either side, in front, or behind, with a high degree of accuracy as far as 16 feet. The scent glands contain about one tablespoon, enough for 5 or 6 rounds.
If you or your pet gets sprayed, forget the tomato juice (make a Bloody Mary instead) as the solution is easy, the end result worth the mess, and safe for your pets, people, lawn furniture, and most anything else. When using on animals or people, avoid getting into eyes, nose and mouth.
1 quart hydrogen peroxide
1/4 cup baking soda
1 teaspoon liquid soap (any nice smelling hand, body, or dish soap)
dab of vapor rub
rubber or latex gloves
Mix the baking soda and liquid soap in an easy to pour container, like a shampoo bottle (for pets) or a spray bottle (for furniture and fabric.) Pour the peroxide in slowly to prevent foaming. Gently rock mixture from side to side to mix thoroughly.
Dab vapor rub under your nose to mask the smell. Put on the gloves. Completely saturate smelly area, rubbing deeply. Leave for 3 minutes. Rinse thoroughly. Repeat.
• The body of the striped skunk is about the size of an ordinary house cat (up to 29 inches long and weighing about 8 pounds).
• They eat pesky grubs, insects and small rodents, so they are beneficial in the garden.
• The striped skunk's scientific name, mephitis mephitis, actually means "noxious gas, noxious gas"
• Skunks are resistant to snake venom. They can survive ten times the amount of venom needed to kill another animal of similar size.
Skunks have short lives; fewer than 10% survive for longer than three years. Their primary natural predators are larger birds of prey such as Great Horned Owls and Red Tailed Hawks, which have a poor-to-nonexistent sense of smell and the advantage of aerial attack. One of the biggest killers of skunks is, not surprisingly, us in our cars. “With poor eyesight and a huge confidence in their chemical defense, they will stand their ground in the face of an oncoming vehicle rather than flee.”
Skunks are nocturnal, so if you see one in the daylight hours, be cautious as this behavior is abnormal and the skunk may be rabid or have distemper. Call your wildlife professional immediately (because I know you have one on speed dial).