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Skunks, Harbingers of Spring

Remember when we took Sunday drives with the family? Recently, I treated myself to a short drive, criss-crossing the roads between Highway 108 and the Tuolumne River, enjoying the sight of lush green hills and wildflowers coloring the fields. A fat black critter with a white stripe was squashed in the middle of Algerine Road, and the unmistakable odor obliterated the otherwise fresh scents of spring.

When leaving a friend´s home one evening following our monthly Domino game we were assailed by the odor of a nearby skunk, making his night-time rounds. There is nothing quite like it and you´ll never mistake it for anything else.

On a recent trip to the Bay Area I encountered five or six dead skunks along the highway. Identified by their pungent odor, there was no mistaking the critters that had met their demise from speeding automobiles.

It is reported that because of a poor or limited sense of smell, the great horned owl is the only predator to eat the skunk. I hear them hooting in the woods and I like to think they are controlling the skunk population in my area.

An article about skunks in the San Francisco Chronicle brought more information to light. This time of year the guys are out looking for gals. Either the guys are headstrong and careless, or the gals are coy and elusive—one or the other can become roadkill.

According to this source, skunks have been with us for at least 11 million years. Of the several species here in Northern California, we see the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) most frequently. A Toronto study reports a range of around 250 acres and in rural areas it can be much larger. Skunks begin their breeding season around February. One male may sequester a harem of females. After mating, the gals nest in maternity dens and care for the kits for two to four weeks, at which time the young become capable of spraying. After a few months the kits can be seen following their mother as she makes her nightly rounds in search of food. By midsummer, they are on their own.

Contrary to general impression, skunks are reported to be easygoing and rarely irritated. They must be really provoked or confronted to cause them to spray. They are equipped with two glands, each of which contains about a half ounce of scent and—after five or six discharges—must be recharged. According to the University of California Integrated Pest Management website, a skunk´s powerful and protective scent glands can shoot their potent and pungent liquid as far as 6 to 10 feet.

So what´s the best treatment if you or your pet gets sprayed? There is still the traditional tomato juice treatment and some people use commercial deodorizers. More effective is a solution devised by Humboldt State University chemistry teacher, William F. Wood, who mixes a quart of hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon of liquid detergent. It´s a strong solution and he says it will bleach a black lab!

Skunks have a varied diet. They consume mice, frogs, bird eggs, earthworms, carrion, garbage, berries, beetle grubs, beehives and corn. (I wish they ate gophers, voles and moles too.) But 70% of their diet consists of insects which can damage our crops and gardens: June beetles, potato beetles, army worms, cutworms and budworms. They do provide a service for us, so perhaps we should regard them more charitably.

Nevertheless, you´ll want to discourage them from taking up residence near your home or establishing their den nearby. Don´t leave pet food outdoors. Block off any openings in or around your foundation crawl space, decks, sheds, hot tub and stairs with ¼” hardware cloth, available at your hardware store. Keep trash can lids securely in place. Some people scatter moth balls, rags soaked in ammonia or a combination of Murphy´s Oil Soap, castor oil, human urine and water to keep them at bay.

Trapping a skunk isn´t difficult, and they apparently respond to sardines and/or peanut butter used as bait. But what do you do with a trapped skunk? Better to do what you can to discourage their habitation but then give them plenty of space, don´t startle him or her, and try to remember the good they are doing by consuming many insects.

For more information on skunks, go to www.ipm.ucdavis.edu , then click onHomes, gardens, landscapes, and turf” and then onBirds, mammals, and reptiles.”

Joan Bergsund once observed a skunk waddling up the hill toward the house. It darted down a hole which she had thought was home to squirrels.