by Roland D. Hallee
“You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road, dead skunk in the middle of the road; You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high heaven.”
Those lyrics to the song by Loudon Wainwright III tend to speak the truth this time of the year. With the warmer weather during the day, skunks are finding their way out of the winter dens.
A dead skunk by the side of the road in North Vassalboro last Sunday is witness to that rite of spring.
Skunks are placid, retiring and non-aggressive by nature. They try very hard not to get in harm’s way. I’ve had several encounters with skunks and have been able to “talk my way” out of trouble. Some people call me the “skunk whisperer.” Speaking to them in a soft, calm, yet firm voice will convince them that you, also, mean no harm.
“Crossin’ the highway late last night
He shoulda looked left, and he shoulda looked right;
He didn’t see the station wagon car,
The skunk got squashed and there you are.”
Skunks eat mostly insects, many of which are pests to humans. Therefore, they are very beneficial to have around. They also eat some plant material, including wild fruits, apples and corn. In winter and spring, they may eat mice and the eggs of ground-nesting birds. In the summer, they find inground bee hives to be a delicacy.
Breeding usually occurs in late winter or early spring and gestation averages about 60-75 days, so babies are usually born in May or June. Second litters and late births do occur. After mating, a female can store the male’s sperm and delay initiating pregnancy for some weeks. Litters range from three to as many as 10 young who remain in the nest for about two months, after which they begin to follow their mom as she forages.
Skunks are able to dig their own burrows but will also use abandoned dens of other animals, hollow logs, wood or rock piles, under buildings, stone walls, hay or brush piles and trees or stumps. We had a family of five once reside under our deck at camp. Had I not observed them going under there at dawn one day, I would never have known they were there.
“Take a whiff on me, that ain’t no rose,
Roll up yer window and hold your nose.
You don’t have to look and you don’t have to see,
‘Cause you can feel it in your olfactory.”
The skunk’s main defense is a complex chemical substance that includes sulfuric acid that can be fired from either one or two independently targetable anal glands. Because of this ability, skunks will stand and face a threat rather than run away. This works well with people and animals but is usely against cars. As a result, many skunks die on roadways. They just can’t seem to win that battle.
Skunks generally will give you ample warning before unloading its odoriferous defense system. Each year, many skunks are killed because someone is afraid of getting sprayed. Those who are familiar with skunks know that it takes a lot to get sprayed. Hopefully, through education, people will come to recognize and understand the role these mild animals play and the benefits of tolerating their presence.
Skunks can carry rabies, but it is important to remember that not every skunk is rabid. Only if an adult skunk seen in the daytime is showing abnormal behaviors such as paralysis, unprovoked aggression, moving in circles, or self-mutilation should you call your animal control officer or police department.
“Yeah, you got your dead cat and you got yer dead dog,
On a moonlight night you got yer dead toad frog;
Got yer dead rabbit and yer dead raccoon,
The blood and guts, they’re gonna make you swoon.”
They can be frightening when you encounter one, especially in the middle of the night, but these critters are kind of nice to have around at times. I remember one time when I came out of the house in early morning to fetch my newspaper, and found a large hole dug in the side lawn. At first I was upset at the sight. Closer inspection showed that a skunk had dug up a hornets nest that I did not know even existed. It could have brought some painful consequences the next time I mowed my lawn. I still thank that skunk to this day.