May 8, 2009

Skunk Smell In The Desert

In all the years I've lived in this part of California, I don't think I've ever smelled or seen a skunk out on the desert floor. Up in the mountains, I've smelled skunks but I don't know if I've ever seen any or not. But down here with the juniper bushes and Joshua trees and tumbleweeds? No skunks. About the only skunk I've ever seen in these parts has been the logo up on the sides of buildings where certain aircraft are built and maintained.

Well, this morning at the office I stepped out of my car and there was the very distinct smell of skunk. Maybe even dead skunk. I lived in Florida as a kid and there were skunks there. And in Wisconsin. And in Tennessee -- lots of skunks in Tennessee. Dead skunk on the road is a smell all its own, one you know instantly when you smell it. And that's what was at the office today -- skunk musk. One of the most pungent odors I can think of.

Looking at the geographic range of skunks, it seems they live pretty much everywhere in the continental U.S.A., except for the western bank of the Colorado River and the southeastern quadrant of Nevada.

It's really kind of amazing how many wild animals live, nearly invisibly, in the middle of human civilization. They learn the rules, find hiding places, and eat our garbage. Human garbage is a pretty reasonable source of sustenance for a lot of these animals. And they're smarter than we give them credit for being, as anyone who has had to deal with critters like possums or raccoons can attest. I bet the skunk is a pretty quick study, too.

Some skunk trivia: They can eat nearly anything, subsisting on leaves and grasses when food is scarce to berries and vegetables and even meat -- their most plentiful food source in the wild are insects and earthworms. They tend to scavenge for meat from mammals and birds rather than hunting it.

They are one of the few animals that predates on honeybees; it's difficult for a bee's sting to penetrate through the skunk's thick fur. The skunk will just walk right up to a beehive and scratch at the side of it, lets the bees try to sting him through his fur, and then eats them up.
Skunks are territorial, with females keeping a territory of about 500 acres, and males of nearly ten times that much. Male and female territories overlap, but skunks of the same sex will shun one another except in winter, when they will hibernate together in a burrow. Females tend to only have one mate but males will typically mate with every female in his territory.
They are not afraid of water but are poor swimmers.

Skunks have terrible eyesight and can only see things clearly about ten to twelve feet away from their faces. This is why nearly half of all skunk deaths are caused by collisions with motor vehicles -- they can't see the vehicles coming to protect themselves. They are, however, plentiful in number. For skunks as a species, the dangers of individuals being run over by cars from time to time seems to be more than compensated for by the benefits of having access to human garbage as a food source. They navigate the world by hearing and smell.

The name for a group of skunks is a "huddle." (Cf., "herd" of cattle, "flock" of seagulls, or "murder" of crows.) A baby skunk is called a "kit." There seems to be no special name for males and females the way, for instance, cattle are "cows" and "bulls," or horses are "stallions" and "mares." Male skunks are bigger than females, but not by much.

Skunks enjoy substantial immunity from snake venom. They are vulnerable to other kinds of venom, though, such as from a scorpion.

If you get blasted by the musk at close range, it's a lot like getting hit with tear gas -- the overpowering smell is disabling, and the musk can painfully blind you. Stay away from a wild skunk's ass -- although I'm sure that you already knew that much. Bears fear skunks, and bears are generally not afraid of anything. Wild skunks should be avoided not only for the musk but also because the skunk can carry any of a number of diseases transmittable to humans. Like most furry mammals, they also can gather fleas, which can carry a different constellation of diseases, including plague.

The skunk will spray reluctantly and only when it feels very threatened. The typical animal carries only enough musk for five or six sprays, and it can take up to ten days before the skunk secretes enough fluid in its anal glands to replenish a spray. A mother protecting her clutch of kits is much more likely to spray than any other skunk.

One of the reasons that skunks have their distinctive black-and-white coloring is so that predators will quickly learn what a skunk looks like and leave future skunks alone without needing to be sprayed again. But some skunks are colored tan or off-white and like all animals, there are occasionally instances of albinism. Pretty much the only animal that predates off of skunks are great horned owls -- owls have almost no sense of smell and retractable carapaces for their eyes that reflexively close when the owl strikes its prey, so the owl is almost perfectly suited for hunting skunk.

Charles Darwin encountered skunks in Uruguay, while serving as naturalist on the HMS Beagle. He wrote:
We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks—odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger, and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.
People actually keep skunks as pets; they domesticate reasonably well. It's legal in some states, but I don't think they are in California. Domesticated skunks can live up to twenty years as a pet in a loving home -- they don't tend to make it past three or four years on their own, either in the wild or scavenging human garbage for a living. They dig instinctively, so you'd have to be careful letting your pet skunk out in your back yard unsupervised for very long. The skunk is kind of cute, and you can have its anal scent glands removed without harming it.

Not that I would want a pet skunk, even a de-odorized one. I bet clipping the skunk's claws is not a pleasant task, and since they're so hairy, they would shed all over the place. It would be tough to find a groomer willing to take on the task of washing such a beast. I'm pretty sure a shaved skunk would not be nearly as cute as a furry one, and if a shaved skunk got out of the home, he would be in danger since would have an instinct to locate a beehive and harass the bees inside, but lack his natural protection of long fur.

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