Scent of Love Spices the Air: Romancing the Skunk

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

Courtship is well underway for Mephitis mephitis, the often maligned striped skunk. That means the scent of love is in the night air. Romance for the skunk is a simple affair: wander about under the cover of darkness and search for a suitable mate. Yet, during these nocturnal searches, as winter slowly wanes, skunks may encounter other critters of the night: raccoons, coyotes, fox, cats and dogs. If these creatures do not give the hormonal-driven skunk, with a mission of mating on its mind, a wide berth, the skunk swings into defensive mode. First comes a warning: the front paws pound up and down. Perhaps that message serves to say, “Do you remember me from last time?”

A skunk  captured under a deck in a live trap presents a removal challenge for the homeowner.

A skunk captured under a deck in a live trap presents a removal challenge for the homeowner.

Skunks are legendary for their powerful chemical warfare predator deterrent—a bitterly putrid smelling spray. The skunk, like the weasel and mink, which are also found in Oakland County, are members of the Mustelid family. They all produce very strong smelling musk from a scent gland. However, only the skunk can fire the musk as mist. The skunk is an excellent marksman and when needing to defend itself from a threat, it will raise its furry tail, swing around and blast away from twin nipples hidden under the tail. The fine oily droplets can carry 10 feet and the smell persists for days on anything it touches. This defense works extremely well to ward off most predators. A notable exception would be that of the great horned owl, a significant predator of skunks in rural Oakland County. The defense also fails miserably for fast approaching cars.

The great horned owls of Oakland County frequently prey on skunks.

The great horned owls of Oakland County frequently prey on skunks.

Skunks have a natural preference for the abandoned dens of woodchucks, coyotes and fox. Many skunks set up housekeeping under large fallen logs or under rock piles. Much to the chagrin of humans, low to the ground patio decks and backyard sheds are five star hotels for a skunk seeking shelter. Their tracks and classic meandering trails in the snow indicate shopping for suitable real estate. The good news is that skunks are not aggressive toward humans. The bad news is that the presence of humans will not encourage them to leave and that’s where troubles begin.

If you, or your pets, get sprayed by a skunk, bathing in tomato juice to remove the chemical takes a lot of juice and is very questionable in its effectiveness. A tried and true formula consists of carefully mixing one liter of hydrogen peroxide with ¼ cup of baking soda and l teaspoon of dishwashing liquid. Be sure not to get it in the eyes and do not seal the container when done as pressure can build up. An internet search will give details on this formula and others.

Skunk tracks are very noticable in deep snow. Their low to the ground bodies often leave a "plowed" path.

Skunk tracks are very noticable in deep snow. Their low to the ground bodies often leave a “plowed” path.

Skunks often meander near creeks in the waning days of winter. This interpretive sign is at the Hawk Woods Nature Center in Auburn Hills.

Skunks often meander near creeks in the waning days of winter. This interpretive sign is at the Hawk Woods Nature Center in Auburn Hills.

The fine dining habits of skunks are in many ways beneficial to humans. Skunks eat mice, voles and almost any species of insect to be found in a garden. In a few months, when the snow is gone and the earth is warm and greening up, skunks will turn their attention to a delicacy we fear: underground yellow jacket nests. Perhaps we should look at the skunky scent in the air in these early nights of March as a signal that the dawn of spring is near.

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. schechterj@oakgov.com

Visit DestinationOakland for detailed information on all 13 parks.

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