The invincibility of a no-nonsense smell
by Bob & Jorja Feldman
From the November, 2018 issue
A striped skunk strolled leisurely across our neighbor's backyard, clearly a stroller without fear. "Skunks," says Adam Ferguson, have "confidence without arrogance." Ferguson is a collection manager with the Field Museum of Natural History and a biologist with particular expertise in skunks.
Skunks reign over their immediate surroundings, paying little or no attention to any other creature. Ferguson muses that they expect others to understand who they are and what they can do. He attributes skunk-car collisions to this species' misplaced confidence that a motor vehicle will, like an animal, yield the right of way once it sees who it is dealing with.
If threatened, a striped skunk will raise its white tipped tail in warning then arch its back and slide backwards. That behavior signals it's time for others to move away! The penultimate step is the skunk contorting itself into a U shape so its eyes and its fully loaded anal glands are both facing the threat. It will spray only as a last resort, however-it takes days for its metabolism to generate more spray, and it is defenseless in the interim.
One of our images shows the skunk that walked so nonchalantly through our neighbor's backyard. It was taken from a distance. The other shows Stinky Pete, a de-scented education ambassador at the Creature Conservancy.
Our wild skunk's stripes do not extend all the way down its back; Pete's do. But these different markings do not indicate separate species: both are striped skunks, the only skunk species found in southeastern Michigan.
According to the scientific literature, skunks favor housing created by others, such as abandoned woodchuck burrows. The experience of Scott Purr, the owner of Critter Control of Ann Arbor, is that skunks like to do their own burrowing under decks and sheds. Purr told us that woodchuck burrow entrances are bowling-ball size with dirt around them. Skunk burrow entrances are softball size and have no dirt around them. That's useful information when looking under one's
Skunks are omnivores, eating whatever is in season and available. Their diet is heavy in insects, so they are considered beneficial from a human perspective. Purr says that our local skunks' favorite food is "lawn shrimp," otherwise known as grubs.
In terms of seasonal activity, we should still be seeing them in early November, foraging for food. A good snowfall will send them into winter housing, where a number of skunks of the same sex may huddle together to keep warm. They sleep a lot and can lower their metabolism a bit but do not undergo true hibernation, and they may look outside for food if their stores of body fat run thin. They'll reemerge come February, when mating season starts. Then, Purr says, you may see as many as five or six skunks on the same property at the same time.
Skunks can be a nuisance if they try to share our housing with us or if our dogs get too curious. Like many wild animals, they can carry rabies. Aside from these issues, they are environmentally beneficial and add beauty and interest to our outdoor lives. We like to see them. But only from a distance.
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