Sun 25 Aug 2013
Skunks are crepuscular, which means they hunt at twilight and daybreak, and last Wednesday as the sun was going down, a lone skunk showed up just outside Mitchell cabin. Except during the mating season, skunks are solitary critters, so its being alone was no surprise. The surprise was seeing one at all. It had been years since a skunk had been out in the open around the cabin, and it was sort of a treat to see one despite skunks’ stinking reputation.
It’s not unusual to smell a skunk hereabouts, of course; this is the countryside. And occasionally I’ll spot a dead skunk on Highway 1. Skunks have terrible eyesight and can see only about 10 feet, which is why they are so vulnerable on roadways.
A skunk on the hunt.
Skunks are omnivorous. They eat plants, grasses, and berries at this time of year, as well as insects, earthworms, salamanders, frogs, lizards, carrion, and birds’ eggs whenever they can find them.
They are a major predator of honeybees because their thick fur protects them from stings when they attack hives — to eat bees, not honey.
This skunk seemed to be looking for small rodents, such as moles or voles, and periodically dug furiously in various holes it came across. The creature’s strong, short legs and long front claws are ideal for burrowing.
Skunks mate in the early spring and their young are born about two months later. Blind and deaf when first born, kits open their eyes after three weeks and are weaned in about two months. The kits stay with their mother for about a year, which is a long time for a skunk. Their typical lifespan in the wild is only three to six years.
At times the skunk was almost vertical as it dug into the ground. It couldn’t see me when it was in this position, but I wasn’t about to pull its tail.
Skunks produce their foul-smelling fluid in anal scent glands to drive off predators, of course, and they can spray it up to 10 feet with accuracy.
Skunks are sparing with their spray, however, for they have only enough for about half a dozen blasts, and it takes roughly 10 days to rebuild their supply. So rather than relying on repeated spraying to drive off predators, they count on their distinctive black and white coloring to act as a warning. Nonetheless, if a skunk raises its tail, stamps its feet, and hisses, back off quickly, for it is about to spray.
Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evens writes in The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula that skunks are sometimes eaten by mountain lions. I wonder how cougars avoid being sprayed. Great horned owls also eat skunks, but that’s easier to understand since the owls have a very poor sense of smell.
Skunk meandering at sunset.
So what do you do if you, your dog, or your cat gets sprayed? Despite the old wives’ tale, tomato juice will not eliminate the smell. It merely cloaks it slightly. Humans and pets both need thorough baths to get rid of the stench.
Bathing dogs is not always easy, and bathing cats can be comparable to the battle for Damascus. Moreover, you probably will need special pet shampoos and soaps, which are usually available only from veterinarians.
It is common for skunks to dig holes in backyards and lawns, much to the annoyance of some homeowners.
In the mid-1990s, the Marin Major Crimes Taskforce raided a marijuana patch on the south side of the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road about a mile east of Highway 1. Pot is reputed to have a skunk-like smell, and soon after the raid, I began noticing a skunky smell whenever I drove through the area. Evidently there was a second patch somewhere in the vicinity.
Almost two weeks went by before I spotted a dead skunk in a ditch beside the road and figured out where the smell was coming from. It made me wonder how often cops prepare for pot raids but find only dead skunks.
In the Deep South, skunks are often referred to as polecats while in Latin America they are called zorrillos (meaning little foxes).
Skunks have suffered from bad press for centuries. Even Charles Darwin dismissed skunks as “odious animals” in The Voyage of the Beagle published in 1839. However, when Looney Tunes in 1945 debuted a Parisian skunk named Pepé Le Pew, the creature’s reputation began to evolve from stinky to comic. Click here for a bit of post-war nostalgia.